The year 2020: The thrill is gone

Thursday, 17 December 2020 00:20 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}


On the one hand, we have the militarisation of public security, including the control of the Police force which is to be raised to 100,000 members, supplementing the ongoing (Chinese-style) “grid management” neighbourhood and village-level system of intelligence gathering. On the other hand, we have an insensitive policy about the dead bodies of Muslims; a policy that is not only heartless but also brainless, since the true story of the burning of the body of an infant can generate waves of shock, horror, and outrage, across the Muslim community not only in Sri Lanka but also in the region and throughout the world, thereby breeding radicalisation and extremism – Pic by Shehan Gunasekara

“The thrill is gone It’s gone away for good” – BB King, ‘The Thrill is Gone’

Year 2020 is one that humanity—certainly the generations alive today—shall always recall, collectively, as the most dreadful. 

2020 was a watershed year for Sri Lanka. Politically, the administration of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa secured a two-thirds majority in Parliament. Constitutionally it concentrated political power by means of the 20th Amendment to a degree that, at the least, took us back over 40 years to the original J.R. Jayewardene presidency at a time when society has evolved beyond it, and by another interpretation, accumulated power at the apex to an unprecedented degree, superseding even that of the original Jayewardene model. 

2020 witnessed the parliamentary extinction of the UNP, the reduction of the SLFP to a residue, and the parliamentary marginalisation of the JVP, which 15 years ago had 40 seats (and boasted of wielding the parliamentary remote-control). ‘Contact tracing’ shows that the SLFP and JVP were punished by the electorate as allies, formal and informal respectively, of Ranil’s UNP. Ranil Wickremesinghe was electorally run out of his hometown, Colombo, in 2020. 

Year 2020 did not eliminate the competitive two-party system. Instead, the SLPP (‘Pohottuwa’) which spectacularly supplanted the SLFP, was joined in Parliament by the SJB, successor to the UNP. The Pohottuwa took two years to bloom, starting with the Nugegoda rally of Feb 2015, while the SJB emerged with a gestation period of months and clocked (as I observed in these pages and Upul Joseph Fernando also did in the Sinhala-language mainstream press) a higher percentage of votes and number of seats than did S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike’s SLFP at the first General Election it faced in 1952, a year after its formation. 

2020 saw the beginning of a new chapter in Lanka’s political narrative, with a Rajapaksa Raj facing a Premadasa challenger. Premadasa arrived as Opposition Leader and founder-leader of his own party, the SJB, having resisted the Rajapaksas in their Deep South fiefdom for 20 years (meeting Che Guevara’s criteria of “battles won or lost—but fought—against the enemy”) and coming through the electoral firestorm of 2019 and 2020, battling the Rajapaksas at their nationalist zenith. 

Religious apartheid?

Two phenomena strike me as emblematic of the process carrying us from 2019 through 2020 to 2021. 

Firstly, the new Ministry of Public Security which has a retired Rear-Admiral as Minister, has as its Secretary, a retired Major-General, the outgoing Chief of National Intelligence, who is currently a member of the Presidential Task Force for a Virtuous Etc. Society. This symbolises the continuing, unprecedented process of the militarisation of the State; a structural change that encases the 20th Amendment and renders it something far more, and far worse, than a retrogression to the Jayewardene-era presidency. 

Secondly, the cremation under the regime’s anti-COVID-19 protocols, of a 20-day old infant born to a family of the Islamic faith; protocols which have not only evoked protest from the island’s Muslim community but also has been subject to critical scrutiny by UN Special rapporteurs as well as the UN’s Resident Representative in Colombo. 

President Gotabaya’s reported outreach to his Maldivian counterpart to export the bodies of the Sri Lankan COVID-19 casualties of the Islamic faith for burial, smacks of religious apartheid. If it is bad to bury the bodies in Sri Lanka why is it good to do so in the Maldives? The Sri Lankan Muslims families of corona victims are given a choice: cremation or burial in exile. And where are the Catholic victims to be buried? Kerala?

So, on the one hand, we have the militarisation of public security, including the control of the Police force which is to be raised to 100,000 members, supplementing the ongoing (Chinese-style) “grid management” neighbourhood and village-level system of intelligence gathering.

On the other hand, we have an insensitive policy about the dead bodies of Muslims; a policy that is not only heartless but also brainless, since the true story of the burning of the body of an infant can generate waves of shock, horror, and outrage, across the Muslim community not only in Sri Lanka but also in the region and throughout the world, thereby breeding radicalisation and extremism. By all available evidence, the radicalisation of Sri Lankan Muslim youth began with and as a response to the unprecedented, unchecked rise of Islamophobic movements and a campaign of violence starting with the “Dolahey karalla” campaign of 2012 and moving through the lethal violence of Aluthgama to the Ampara “infertility pills” agitational campaign.

This time, the regime’s brutal mentality as manifested in the incineration of dead bodies of COVID-19 victims including from Muslim and Christian families, has triggered civic resistance from the community, including the modern, educated, English-speaking strata and its women activists. One can only imagine what it must feel like to mosque-educated, imam-indoctrinated young men in poorer and more remote areas of the island. 

Since Christchurch New Zealand impacted tragically upon Sri Lanka in 2019, one can only guess at the radicalising and mobilising effect this narrative must have on Muslims throughout the world and the negative impression that would be created in the global Islamic community, about Sinhala Buddhists or Buddhists in general.

Eastern Terminal, north-east Tamils

The Tamil prospect is no less fraught, albeit differently so. Repeating but improving an old ‘magnet-and-wedge’ move of President Jayewardene in the days of Indian Foreign Secretary Romesh Bhandari, and successfully replayed by President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s brother Basil in the aftermath of the war in 2009 (when Delhi held Colombo’s IOUs), President Gotabaya (probably counselled by High Commissioner-designate Milinda Moragoda and his Pathfinders) seems to be using the magnet of geo-economic gain to attempt a recalibration of India’s geostrategic calculus regarding his regime and the relative priority of Tamil autonomy on the island. 

Colombo supplements its geo-economic magnet with an ideological ‘regime affinity’ pitch, to pre-empt or deflect an Indo-US pincer, drive a wedge between Delhi and the Tamils, play the Indian card in Geneva in March 2021, and overrun the constitutional defences of the Tamils’ ‘areas of historic habitation’.  

The apparent Eastern Terminal/north-eastern Tamil trade-off may prove in retrospect a successful manipulation by Colombo, China’s partner in the Indian Ocean, of India’s “soft state” (Gunnar Myrdal), enabling the rollback or outflanking of the gains of the Indo-Lanka Accord of 1987—India’s buffer on the island’s North-East which includes Trincomalee—in exchange for a logistical toehold, dwarfed by China’s Port City footprint, on Colombo’s sea-front.

Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa, a cannily pragmatic politician, is attempting to fast-track the Provincial Council elections under the existing laws and regulations, but the pro-GR ultranationalists wish to downsize the 13th Amendment either through a new Constitution or constitutional amendment before the PC elections.    

President Gotabaya should settle for the implementation of the 13th Amendment under Indian auspices rather than face the Biden-Harris administration on autonomy and accountability, given that Senator Biden’s plan for Iraq, a three-component federation with a weak central government, was dubbed ‘soft partition’. 

2021 could be the year of the new Constitution which declares Sri Lanka a Sinhala-Buddhist State and thereby attempts to dampen or divert the disaffection rising within the Sinhala community on economic, human rights and democracy issues, locking-in most of the Sinhala majority in a winning coalition of the ultranationalist Right, as in Israel. This could be cemented (a la Netanyahu) by flouting or overturning the land provisions of the 13th Amendment, opening-up the ‘areas of historic habitation’ of the Tamils for Sinhala colonisation and further relieving the pressure of Sinhala socioeconomic discontent.

Wrong target 

Can supremacist politics outrun the social dynamics on the ground? “The thrill is gone” (as the late BB King’s immortal blues hit goes) sums up the public’s shift in mood concerning the Gotabaya presidency between November 2019 and December 2020, with the grotesque, uncaring, mismanagement of the Covid-19 pandemic and its spillover effect being the most obvious, but not only, causative factor. 

The partiality and patronage afforded indigenous quackery and a mumbo-jumbo brew to fight the pandemic, while the priority should be the obtaining of a vaccine, reflects the regime’s disregard for expertise and education, and the rapid deterioration of its level of rationality in decision-making and competence in crisis-management. In the famous sociological phraseology, the “revolution of rising expectations” of 2019 met “the counterrevolution of rising frustrations” of 2020.

This palpable change in public perceptions becomes explicable only if the majority and not merely the minorities have been negatively impacted. 

Both the regime ideologues and the anti-regime neoliberal ideologues view Lankan reality through the prism of ‘the Sinhala-Buddhist majority vs the minorities’, with the only difference between them being that for the regime it is a question of the ‘marginalised Sinhala-Buddhist majority’ vs. the ‘privileged minorities’ while for the neoliberals it is, (as one said in a recent tweet) ‘marginalised minorities’ vs. ‘Sinhala-Buddhist civilisation State’.

The reality is contrary to this frame whichever way it’s angled, and came into sharp focus in a series of incidents, most dramatically the Mahara massacre. Except for the very rich and well-connected, which the Sanders-AOC wing of the US Democrats would call “the 1%”, “the 99%” of the Sinhala-Buddhist majority is also suffering at the hands of a heartless regime, not in its ethno-religious identity but in its material, socioeconomic being and as citizens. Either you believe that the overwhelming bulk of the citizenry is satisfied under this regime, or you have to accept that the majority of Sinhala-Buddhists who constitute a majority of the citizens, are suffering and disgruntled.    

The regime’s Sinhala-Buddhism, though sincere as self-image, objectively functions as a disguise for the interests of a minority of crony capitalists, ex-military brass and a single clan. The regime’s cosmopolitan-liberal critics fall into the trap of their foe when they attack the Sinhala-Buddhists as a bloc and Sinhala-Buddhism as a communitarian identity. 

Ideas vaccine

Urging a New Liberalism and outlining its platform in a December 2020 essay in Prospect magazine entitled ‘The Future of Liberalism’, Timothy Garton Ash, Isaiah Berlin Professorial Fellow at St Antony’s College, Oxford, and a Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University, begins by identifying what went wrong, opening the door to authoritarian majoritarian ultranationalism. 

In a description that perfectly fits the Ranil-CBK-Mangala ‘cosmopolitan liberalism’ which created the space for the Gotabaya phenomenon and its triumph, Garton Ash writes:

“…Cosmopolitan liberals paid too little attention to the other halves of our own societies. We talked a lot about “the international community,” much less about national communities. By concentrating on the legitimate desire of diverse minorities for recognition of their complex identities, we failed to see how those whom early multiculturalists had assumed to belong to secure majorities now felt increasingly insecure and threatened in their own identities. This left the door open to the “white identity politics” of Trump and his ilk. The majority-feeling-like-a-minority resentment was heightened by liberal elites’…contempt for the half of society without higher education, especially when that other half expressed simplistic and politically incorrect views. Witness Hillary Clinton’s notoriously condescending phrase about ‘the basket of deplorables’.” (The future of liberalism | Prospect Magazine)

In a segment captioned ‘The State-Nation’, Garton Ash makes yet another observation enormously pertinent to the politically illiterate and obtuse Lankan cosmopolitan (neo)liberal intellectual-ideological conclave:

“This is uncomfortable territory for contemporary liberals. Some are altogether unhappy with the stubborn persistence of nations. But rather than drawing up our battered troops on a marshy frontline marked “internationalism versus the nation,” we need to regroup on the more defensible high ground of the nation defined in liberal terms…These are surely terms on which liberals can engage, arguing not about the need for a national political community—which was, after all, one of the main demands of European liberals in 1848, the year Marx published his manifesto—but about the definition and character of that community. As overnight frontier closures and national government responses to the COVID-19 pandemic have again demonstrated, the nation is just too important, and too strong in its emotional appeal, to be left to the nationalists.” (Ibid)

Ranil-Mangala ‘cosmopolitan liberalism’ or rather ‘globalist neoliberalism’ did just that, namely, leave the nation, with its importance and strong emotional appeal, to be monopolised by the nationalists. 

Timothy Garton Ash makes a strong, explicit pitch for a liberal patriotism, which the Lankan Opposition democrats should adopt:

“Ours will therefore be an inclusive, liberal patriotism, capacious and sympathetically imaginative enough to embrace citizens with multiple identities…Such an open, positive, warm-hearted version of the nation is capable of appealing not just to dry reason but also to the deep human need for belonging and the moral imperative of solidarity. While the coronavirus pandemic initially triggered a bout of national self-isolation, it has also showed us the best in community spirit and patriotic solidarity. Liberal patriotism is an essential ingredient of a renewed liberalism.” (Ibid)

He mourns that post-cold war liberalism had ignored the warning of French political philosopher Pierre Hassner that the irrepressible human “yearning for community and identity, on the one hand, and for equality and solidarity on the other” would be re-born. Garton Ash writes that “…Community and identity are values (and human needs) often emphasised in conservative thought, while the socialist tradition has paid particular attention to equality and solidarity.” He then places his cards on the table: “…In the half-jesting spirit of the Polish philosopher Leszek Kołakowski’s celebrated 1978 essay ‘How to Be a Conservative-Liberal-Socialist,’ I propose that we should be conservative-socialist-liberals.” (Ibid)

It may be some interest to the Lankan reader that a critical revaluation and rectification of Liberalism had been suggested along broadly compatible lines by me in the late 1990s in a South Asian Liberal Review published by the Friedrich Naumann Stiftung and concurrently in the Lanka Guardian magazine, later reproduced in my 2014 volume ‘Long War, Cold Peace’. (See: ‘Liberalism’, in Chapter 5: Reflections and Perspectives, ‘Long War, Cold Peace’, Vijitha Yapa, Colombo 2014, pp 415-419.) 

If as Timothy Garton Ash posits, ‘cosmopolitan liberalism’ led to a hollowing out and the consequent victory of the authoritarian ultranationalist Right in the First World/West, how much more dangerous has it been in the Global South (with Brazil and Sri Lanka as examples)? How much more appropriate would the splicing of his two formulae, ‘liberal patriotism’ and a ‘conservative-socialist-liberalism’ be, and how necessary the supplement or ‘booster’ of a left-liberal populism (Mexico’s President AMLO, Bolivia’s President Arce), in the societies of the South, such as ours?

The current crisis of humanity has four facets: the pandemic, climate change, economic recession and ultranationalist despotism. Just as the global rollout of the anti-corona vaccines will decide the fate of the pandemic in 2021, the outcomes in the other three crisis-domains will be decided by whether or not a ‘vaccine of ideas’ with the composition suggested by Timothy Garton Ash, Jake Sullivan, and above all Pope Francis in his latest encyclical Fratelli Tutti (celebrated by philosopher Charles Taylor), is produced and distributed among humanity. 


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