It’s a long way to the Arab Spring in Sri Lanka

Friday, 9 December 2011 00:01 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

We are still stuck in the winter of our discontent!

By Jude Fernando “Nearly all children nowadays were horrible. What was worst of all was that by means of such organisations as the Spies they were systematically turned into ungovernable little savages, and yet this produced in them no tendency whatever to rebel against the discipline of the Party. On the contrary, they adored the Party and everything connected with it… All their ferocity was turned outwards, against the enemies of the State, against foreigners, traitors, saboteurs, thought-criminals.

It was almost normal for people over thirty to be frightened of their own children” – George Orwell

The Arab spring is fast becoming a global phenomenon in the sense that it is an inspiration and metaphor for branding the anti-government protestors around the world, reimagining of the geopolitical relations, and has promoted many governments (e.g. China) to take precautions to prevent it happening in their own countries. The dawn of ‘Arab Spring’ in Sri Lanka, however, is still a distant dream, despite the fact that the necessary preconditions for it are abundant.

Wide pessimism

Instead of being comfortable with the most common and simple answer that Sri Lankans live under a repressive regime, which I think as unhelpful, misleading and even counterproductive, we could think about three broad reasons for the wide pessimism of any radical change in the status quo.

First, is the growing disjuncture between the comparatively high literacy rates, access to information, and formal democratic freedoms with countries and the apparent decline in people’s participation in political dissent.

Second, the political parties and civil society groups that give voice and leadership to dissent seem to be far removed from the aspirations of the people. Third, these leaders seem to take for granted the people’s awareness of critical issues, frustrations with the ruling regime and enthusiasm for radical change of the status quo. Many of these leaders seem to be less interested in self-criticism of their political ideologies and tactics, and lack the will to accommodate change.

The crisis of the Arab world was precipitated by the global economic crises and the severity of the austerity measures imposed by governments to address the crises. The people of the Middle East lost their faith in and tolerance of the authoritarian and dictatorial governments that used national security, progress, religion, xenophobia, nepotism, patronage, economic and military force to control them.

At the same time, in the more developed countries, the citizenry began to tire of their governments’ endless jockeying for strategic position in the world of geopolitics, and of their own conspicuous consumption. The glories of past military victories no longer served to maintain the power and popular legitimacy of the state.

When the population turned against the state, and state leaders were helpless, they too were abandoned by the external forces that once supported them. These external forces are now busy rebranding their credentials among the population as champions of human rights and democracy and taking control of the economic opportunities these countries offer.

The protestors come from diverse backgrounds and are focused on a wide range of rights. They once thought it would be impossible to achieve them without a radical change in the ruling regime of their respective countries.

Although there were a few prominent personalities who gave leadership to these movements, none of them supports one clear aspirant who is seeking to take power. The protests clearly targeted the economic policies and the political agenda of regime change, but no movement has clearly voiced a specific economic or political program to realise its demands.

Notion of Arab Spring

The notion of Arab Spring originates from the term “springtime of nations” used to describe revolutionary upheavals in Europe during mid 1800s, is somewhat misleading because it makes us think that task of the protest movements is complete. It was the promise of rebirth of a new society that made the term Arab Spring.

It took decades for France to enjoy spring Louise Napoleon won free elections in 1848 following the overthrow of monarchy, and it took 32 years for democracy after ‘Prague Spring’ in 1968. (Many Sri Lankans have been waiting for Spring since the 1977 elections!)

The current chaos in the Arab world has to do with the fact that despite the fall of their leaders, many fundamental questions remain unanswered: Is there a clear road map for the future? Is there easy ways out the current financial crisis and austerity measures? Citizens do not like experimentation, but clarity.

It seems the Arab world is now on its way to a very long winter, which could turn out to be a long spring for neoliberal institutions, the super powers, the wealthy and the extremists who generally prey on the miseries other others. These forces could easily remake the Arab world according to the very image that the protesters despised. Yet, the Arab protesters demonstrated the courage and persistence until they realised their immediate objectives.

‘Sri Lanka Spring’

‘Sri Lanka Spring’ is not a grass-roots movement. Rather, it seems to be imposed from above, under the leadership of the United National Party, which remains largely disconnected from the masses and has, for many years, failed to put its own house in order.

Ranil Wickremesinghe’s refusal to relinquish leadership of the party, despite losing nearly 20 elections and facing rejection by his own party members, makes the public even more fearful of the consequences of yet another UNP Government than they are of the ruling regime. The general public doubts Wickremesinghe’s commitment to justice for Fonseka because of the party’s ambivalent relationship with the General and the UNP’s failure to maintain the momentum of the movement to secure Fonseka’s release.

The UNP cannot build a broad coalition because it is selective of the issues that it is interested in and its allies. For example, it is silent about the privatisation of university system, and has consistently demanded an immediate political settlement to the ethnic crisis. Nor it has clear alternatives solutions to these issues.

The UNP’s take on Fonseka’s heroism against the LTTE is not nuanced enough to mobilise people across different ethnic divide. Placing Gen. Fonseka as the central focus of protests is insufficient convince all ethnic groups to equally revolt against the government.

The lesson we are learning from UNP politics today is that authoritarianism cannot be fought with authoritarianism. Politics of protest are in vain unless they immediately translate into politics of hope.

Civil society organisations

The Arab Spring involves the work of hundreds of civil society organisations both domestic and international. In Sri Lanka, however, the civil society organisations are not a part of the anti-Government protests organised by the political parties not only because they are suppressed by the State, but are urban-based entities without a mass following.

Civil society organisations are silent about Gen. Fonseka. The fragmentation and territorial battles between these organisations do not allow them to coalesce around a ‘national purpose or agenda.’

Although protesters in the Arab Spring were from diverse backgrounds, their sense of nationalism was organic: they shared consensus to liberate the entire nation from their respective despotic rulers.

Sri Lankan nationalism is neither organic nor all-encompassing because it evolved primarily in response to relations between the majority and minority communities, and subsequently in response to the war against the LTTE. (The country lacked an independence movement similar to that of India or Bangladesh).

After the defeat of the LTTE, nationalism seems to have lost its vigour. In the eyes of the public, the Government has not only defeated terrorism but also has limited the possibilities of meaningful devolution of power the Tamil minority. Citizens share the Government’s sentiment that separatism was exclusively an LTTE project supported by external forces, and they still believe that development will automatically usher in peace and reconciliation and believe in peace equals end of war.

Economic development

The success of the Government’s war against the LTTE extended to economic development, where the Government has earned a reputation of being capable of get things done efficiently. By combining security with development, it has gained complete control over the development project and severely restricted the space for dissent.

For now, the visibility of mega-development projects gives the public a reason to trust the government. The public isn’t inclined to be swayed by the opposition’s criticisms of these projects, despite the intractable multiple economic crisis and the uneven development between different regions and sectors of the country.

The Government’s economic policies are grounded in the same ideology as the UNP’s. In fact, the Government is perfecting the economic policies of the UNP, and taking them to their logical conclusion.

Centralisation through decentralisation

Power in the UPFA regime is centralised through a sophisticated network of patronage. The governance model in Sri Lanka is a unique example of “centralisation through decentralisation.” Compared to UNP, the UPFA is a broad-based grassroots movement and is quick to respond to grievances through variety of means.

The regime is quick to manage the grievances of the people by appointing committees and tribunals, as, for example, they established agrarian tribunals to address the exploitation of tenant farmers by the landlords. Governance in Sri Lanka is classic example of micro-management of dissent where the society as in George Orwell’s Oceania thought that it “has no capital, and its titular head is a person whose whereabouts nobody knows”.

A broad spectrum of people with diverse ideological and economic interests are brought into the administrative network and they are strategically positioned (and primed with lucrative benefits) to serve the interests of the regime.

It’s a marvellous strategy because it creates the appearance that the regime tolerates a diversity of opinions. In particular, the regime has positioned intellectuals in places where they are unable to exercise their intellectual freedoms and integrity. In these positions, intellectuals either serve the interests of the regime, or they are ignored.

Multipronged strategy

To counter the pressure placed on them by the Western governments and international human rights agencies, the UPFA pursues a multipronged strategy. The UPFA exploits anti-Westernism, xenophobia, and national security at the same time it maintains close relations with China, India, Iran, and Russia.

As WikiLeaks documents make clear, the UPFA has isolated its critics from the general public, while it secretly crawls into bed with its so-called adversaries. As the Government has consolidated its power base it has gradually begun to give lip service to the demands of human rights agencies by contradicting its earlier positions, but only in response to a schedule of its own making.

The international system is nothing but a ‘club of states’ that functions according to an economic and political logic different from those of human rights advocates. That system will give the regime ample time to adjust and counter its opponents… as long as it serves the hegemonic interests of the international system.

To a great extent, the manufactured differences between Western and non-Western states are an ideological ploy to manage populations whose solidarity across nations would otherwise threaten the hegemonic economic interests of the states.

Gratitude overrides frustrations

After the war, the people’s sense of gratitude to the regime still seems to override their frustrations. People are busy rebuilding their lives. The gradual demise of welfare economic policies and the individual rush to make money does not give them much incentive to participate in politics of dissent.

There is plenty of cash circulating in the economy and this allows the Government to carry out popular projects and to appease its supporters. Public consciousness does not yet seem to be affected by the austerity policies that the Government has recently been forced to introduce. We have yet to see the consequences that will surely result from funding mega-projects with borrowed funds, or to gauge the impact of the corresponding lack of economic growth.

University politics

Sri Lankan universities have recently but rapidly ceased to be centres for spearheading the politics of dissent. Although a lack of resources, substandard wages for academics, and the politicisation of the university administration severely constrain freedom of intellectual inquiry and critical thinking in the universities, the university system also imposes self-censorship of the sort described by Soren Kierkegaard: “People demand freedom of speech as a compensation for the freedom of thought which they seldom use.”

Radical changes in the curriculum across the universities have contributed to an ideological and programmatic shift to a culture of politics that is complicit with neoliberalism. The introduction of semester system (a change introduced by neoliberal institutions with the help of local academics) is not only a step towards privatisation, but also a way of imposes systemic constraints on political activities (or praxis) in the university system.

Furthermore, time and space available for radical politics are constrained due to the increasing number of students entering into the workforce and taking off campus professional courses (e.g. CIMA). Professor Carlo Fonseka recently reminded us how JVP and the LTTE suppressed the culture of non-violent critical inquiry within the universities.

Many new university courses are driven by market rationality and academic capitalism. For example, radical political economy and history of economic thought have completely disappeared from Sri Lankan universities.

The majority of economists now train students for servitude in neoliberal economic institutions. Economics as a discipline has abandoned its rich tradition of philosophy and protest, and has become simply a branch of applied mathematics. History, politics, and power relations and no longer introduced into the discussion. The wage inequality that university academics now protest is a product of the same economic ideology and policies that they teach in their classrooms!

People’s expectations

Today people’s expectations are hyper-inflated at the same time they are frustrated by the obstacles that limit realisation of those expectations. A simple demand for regime change, put forward by an ideologically and programmatically bankrupt opposition, will not result in a new wave of critical consciousness.

People are going to have to give up the idea that their problems will be solved by “progress,” because the ideology of progress serves neoliberalism and the State, rather than Sri Lankan citizens.

When the uprising appears in the Middle East appeared to be getting “out of control,” the international powers that had supported the despotic rulers of the Arab world retreated and sometimes even began to side with the protestors. This is not yet happening in Sri Lanka. Instead, these powers are still competing to take control over the internal and external affairs of our country.

‘Sri Lanka Spring’ will be delayed as long as the ruling party is successful in suppressing its opposition by using the very language, agendas, and tactics of its opponents, and the opposition fails to develop a clear road map for the future. A clear road map evolves out of praxis of ongoing process of action and reflection.

George Orwell’s 1984

Perhaps, it would be interesting to read the Sri Lankan situation from the perspective of George Orwell’s 1984. The setting for the novel is Oceania, one of three intercontinental super-states who divided the world among themselves after a global war.

It was in a state of a world of perpetual war, pervasive government surveillance, and incessant public mind control accomplished with a political system named Ingsoc (kind of democratic socialism!) administrated by a privileged Inner Party elite. The philosophy of the deified party leader was all about unity and prosperity, and it decried individuality and expected people of Oceania to subordinate themselves to collective good.

The production of the popular consciousness was managed by Winston Smith who is a member of the Outer Party who works for the Ministry of Truth. The ministry was responsible for propaganda and reconstruction of historical consciousness to make sure that “All history was a palimpsest, scraped clean and re-inscribed exactly as often as was necessary”.

Any type of thinking that displeased the ministry considered a punishable thought crime. Yet Winston Smith secretly hated the Party, and dreamt of rebelling against the Big Brother. Parsons was “Winston’s fellow employee at the Ministry of Truth. He was a fattish but active man of paralysing stupidity, a mass of imbecile enthusiasms-one of those completely unquestioning, devoted drudges on whom, more even than on the thought police, the stability of the Party depended.”

“And the people under the sky were also very much the same – everywhere, all over the world, hundreds or thousands of millions of people just like this, people ignorant of one another’s existence, held apart by walls of hatred and lies, and yet almost exactly the same – people who had never learned to think but were storing up in their hearts and bellies and muscles the power that would one day overturn the world.”

Yet the society is not doomed. “If there was hope, it must lie in the proles, because only there, in those swarming disregarded masses, eighty-five percent of the population of Oceania, could the force to destroy the Party ever be generated,” writes Owerll. But the trouble is “until society becomes conscious they will never dissent, and until after they have dissent they cannot become conscious”.