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Published On:Monday, April 5, 2010
Posted by Sri Lanka Guardian

Liberalism, Sinhala nationalism and the Presidential Election 2010: a belated rejoinder

By “kathika” study circle

(April 05, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) On the eve of the Presidential election 2010 the ‘‘Kathika’ study circle issued a statement on the election and there were some responses to it to which we could not attend at that time. In this article we address some key issues arising from some of the pertinent responses to our statement.

The statement of the ‘Kathika’ study circle on the Presidential Election 2010, titled 2010 Presidential Election: Nationalism Or Liberalism? “Yes, Please!” sought to present an analysis of the political processes operative in the lead to the election.

The central idea of our statement was that if Sinhala nationalism had come to believe that it had established itself as the dominant ideology in Sri Lanka over liberalism following the victory in the war against the terrorism of the LTTE, the run up to the presidential election showed that liberalism had established itself in Sri Lanka as a force that is capable of levelling a serious challenge to nationalism. We argued that the events leading to the Presidential election showed that the Sri Lankan public had sharply divided itself into two contending camps representing the discourses of nationalism and liberalism, and the belief systems and the ways of life built on them which are taken (by them, the public) to be antithetical to each other. We also maintained that whichever side of the two camps in the election, the victorious side may seek to impose its ideological hegemony on the opposing camp, thus aggravating the clash between nationalism and liberalism and giving rise to a long drawn out antagonism in our society which will in turn further strengthen its autocratic tendencies and thereby expose us to the danger of massive social instability in the long run. Our analysis intended to throw light on this scenario urging reflection on the future prospects this will hold for our country.

Until the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) joined the opposition camp, even many who were within the government camp believed that their margin of victory would be minimal. That this was a widespread sense was evident in that all the pro-government forces, political, intellectual, and otherwise were working hard to convince the public that they should vote for the government candidate. Even though how the people voted in the election once the TNA played into the hands of the government was unbelievable for the most optimistic of government ranks, the opposition camp polled over 4 million votes winning the urban centres of Colombo, Galle and Kandy.

In the post Presidential election landscape the oppositional discourses between Sinhala Nationalism and liberalism have continued even though, sans the former army commander being their candidate, the main opposition coalition is raising the issues of cost of living, lack of employment, destitution etc. as its main slogans. Whether the conflict between the nationalist and liberal camps will give rise to social instability in the long run is something that is left to be seen.

Criticisms

One criticism levelled at our analysis of the political situation in the country in the above statement was that we had ignored the complexity of the state as we urged our readers to imagine the state as a union of citizens and therefore define the role of the state as creating the conditions that would facilitate political dialogue among the citizens. When we suggested the imagining referred to above we were drawing inspiration from the practices of the ancient city state or the polis, the epitome of which was the ancient Athens of Socrates. We were not thinking so much of the modern ‘state’ or the ‘nation state’ but a futuristic state which would have sufficiently addressed the implications of the all pervasive character of modernity and capitalism. In our efforts to imagine beyond the dictates of the contemporary political scene we believe we are in good company with Hannah Arendt the central theme of whose writings can be taken as an argument for the revival of the public realm, the ideal type of which she found in the Ancient Athens. It may be relevant for our discussion here that in discussing American politics in her On Revolution, Arendt in fact went on to suggest that the Ward system proposed by Thomas Jefferson would come close to what she imagined to be a genuine public realm of citizens in place of the bourgeois parliamentary democracy, even though she would not have agreed to trade in bourgeois democracy for any form of authoritarian government that would have denied the limited democracy the former offered. We have no qualms about the necessity to attend to the strategies and tactics of governance and state craft, especially when the sovereignty of the state is threatened from both within and outside. Our goal in following Arendt here is to use this moment to arouse our collective imagination to think beyond the present to imagine an alternative future to that of modernity and capitalism, an orientation which no doubt those who are geared to think only in terms of reality here and now may consider naive or unrealistic.

Another comment on our article was related to our ‘methodology.’ We not deny that in our analysis we are guided by theoretical premises which we both apply to and examine in the context of the social processes we are examining. This is generally the method of the social sciences, unlike the natural sciences which used to claim that they begin with observations and then go onto form hypotheses. However, even in the natural sciences, this premise has been seriously challenged since Popper’s work in the latter half of the last century.

The most engaging and detailed response to ‘Kathika’ statement came from Buddika Bandara and Prabha Manuratne (B&P) of who raised several key issues to discuss which we devote the rest of the article.

Sinhala nationalism and liberalism: oppositional discourses

B&P argued that the Presidential election campaigns of both the main camps were based on the rhetoric of victory in the war and that both the camps had a mix of nationalists and liberals among their leading politicians, thus making the “opposition drawn [by ‘Kathika’ ] between nationalism and liberalism, less clear.”

Our position was that the two main contending camps at the Presidential election represented for the public who rallied among them, the discourses of nationalism and liberalism which the hard core followers of each camp would take to be oppositional. The election campaigns of these two camps began by focusing, one, on development, and the other, on liberal democratic values, good governance etc. Even the election manifestoes of the two camps did not refer to the victory in the war as the main plank of the campaign. The war rhetoric surfaced only in the last stages of the campaign when the Tamil National Alliance joined the opposition camp.

We would agree with B&P’s assertion that in selecting the former army commander as their candidate by the opposition, the role he played in the military victory against the LTTE would have been crucial as it is only a person with such ‘nationalist credentials’ who could have mounted a serious challenge to the then incumbent President who was the commander-in-chief of the armed forces in the war against the LTTE. However, this in itself did not push the election campaign to become riveted on nationalism from its onset but only later as we discussed above. In fact, by selecting the army commander, the opposition believed that they had displaced the nationalist rhetoric from the campaign, which in fact was the case, until the TNA joined them.

In our view, that both the main camps of the election may have had politicians of liberal and nationalist orientations did not affect the main thrusts of the two campaigns due to the reasons stated above.

We do not believe that nationalism and liberalism are always mutually exclusive and that they do not and cannot coexist in reality. Our analysis was not focussed on individuals but discourses around which the public were rallying. We only posited nationalism and liberalism as discourses, in so far as they are perceived by their respective strong followers as antithetical to each other. Strong Liberals abhor nationalism as suppressing democracy and freedom of the individual and thereby plurality in society, while strong nationalists consider democracy, freedom of the individual and plurality as secondary in importance to the sovereignty and integrity of the unitary state. That those who have been in power would combine elements of both nationalism and liberalism in their governments, regimes and ranks do not negate the polarised perceptions of those who believe in the two discourses.

freedom: liberal and political

B&P correctly observe that the liberal notion of the freedom of the individual in the market place does not guarantee freedom for all citizens to actively participate in politics. This in fact is the weakness of the liberal notion of individual freedom.

When we refer to liberals as valuing the freedom of the individual in the market it does not mean that the regimes oriented to promoting free market capitalism in Sri Lanka have assured freedom to all individuals under them either.

A liberalised economy does not necessarily offer democratic political and social freedom to all individuals. While the notion of the rights of the individual has its roots in the liberal idea of freedom, a political regime can, as J.R. Jayawardena (JRJ)’s regime did, violate the rights of individuals while assuring freedom in the market place. We have already commented on how the JRJ regime attacked the foundations of all the democratic institutions while promoting the free market. In our view he was no liberal, but an authoritarian ruler.

Whether the rise of terrorism in the Sri Lankan Tamil community is due to the state depriving ‘avenues to the democratic participation of the Tamil people,’ is an issue that has been discussed extensively and we have no intention of revisiting the debate here.

Moreover, the freedom of the individual we refer to as valued by liberals is the liberal notion of the individual as separate from community and tradition, the de-ontological individual, the notion of which Michael Sandel famously criticised in his book Liberalism and the Limits of Justice. The Liberal notion of freedom does not necessarily believe in freeing the individual from all forms of oppression and exploitation including economic, political and social variants, as Marxists would have it.

The Liberal notion of the freedom of the individual has only a weak sense of citizenship where a citizen is treated at best as a voter or consumer. Under a bourgeois liberal democracy, one cannot expect the state to entrust its citizens with a robust citizenship.

The idea that ‘citizenship must be conceived as a way of holding the state accountable’ seems to come close to the liberal notion of the citizen, as if the citizen is outside or external to the state.

B&P are correct in that the Liberal notion of individual freedom does not address the issues of the commoditization of social spaces. In fact, this notion is not at all incompatible with democratic social spaces being subjected to commoditization.


It is liberalism that presents the individual as the opposite of society and the freedom of the individual as freedom from society. It has been the position of ‘‘Kathika’ that freedom of the individual becomes meaningful not in imagining the individual as free of society but as a part of a society.

We choose to not take the individual and society as opposites but instead view them as a totality. We would argue that it is not the individual that is a necessary precondition of a society but rather it is a society that creates the individual and the conditions for his freedom by setting the limits for individuals to become who they are.

While we can agree with B&P that the JRJ regime cannot be held responsible for the structural adjustment policies imposed by the IMF, we cannot forget his enthusiasm in embracing them. It has been pointed out that under the JRJ regime Sri Lanka was the first South Asian economy to embrace the structural adjustment policies imposed by the IMF while both India and China among others responded cautiously by opening up their economies at their own pace and under conditions favourable to their own economies. When JRJ triumphantly declared “Let the robber barons come!” it showed clearly his enthusiasm in embracing these structural adjustment policies. (See, S.B.D. de Silva’s The Political Economy of Underdevelopment for a thoroughgoing analysis of the JRJ regime’s economic policies.) JRJ’s liberalised economy favoured the growth of a mercantile capitalist class in Sri Lanka, as opposed to an industrial capitalist class. Furthermore, it facilitated the growth of a middle class based on trade and private sector employment.

A critique of proletarianisation in the sense of an increase in the incidence of wage labour, that may have taken place globally consequent to structural adjustment policies, needs to be located in the context of discussions on the implications of the persistence of peasant ways of life and pauperisation.

It was during the JRJ regime that Japan gifted the Television to Sri Lanka. The cassette tape industry that developed under the liberalised economy together with the television and the video player paved the way for the growth of the entertainment industry in exponential terms. The freedom of consumption offered by a burgeoning entertainment industry and mass media based on it offered a false sense of political freedom to a generation of youth coming of age under the liberalised economy. The difference between the so-called “popular culture” and commoditization of social and cultural spaces under consumerism turns out to be one of degree rather than one of substance.

urbanisation and modernisation

It is not clear whether as B&P argue that the rise of Sinhala nationalism associated with urban Buddhism is directly connected to the desire for an authoritarian leadership.

Can we assume , that the resurgence of Sinhala nationalism is due to the social anxieties created by the social and institutional crises brought about by capitalism which in turn lead to the desire for the re-establishment of stability through a “strong” authoritarian, militaristic leader?

Is the resurgence of Sinhala nationalism propelled by a desire to find an authoritarian leader who can bring about “law and order” in the face of modernisation and urbanisation which undermines the stability of traditionally established institutes such as the rural family and trade union movements? Is there a feeling that liberalism is undermining the public health and education sectors, and also leading to the spread of political violence in our society?

What is the nature of the relationship between urban Buddhism and the restructuring of the rural family under the present modern-urban conditions? Examining the possible impact of the restructuring of the earlier forms of the rural family under modernisation and urbanisation necessitates a close investigation of such changes in the rural family.

While the decline of the trade-union movement may have more to do with the changing conditions of the working class, women migrating to the Middle East for work undoubtedly affected the stability of the rural family of certain social strata.

Even though the government has imposed certain restrictions on such migrations, one wonders whether there has been any significant public outcry to ban women from migrating. While the migration of labour is voluntary, urban life brings its own benefits and pleasures even to the poor. Further, whether the post 1977 changes in economy and society have brought about a significant migration of labour to urban centres is something that needs to be empirically verified.

The matter with education in Sri Lanka, is not so much the concept of private tuition and the spread of private or international educational institutions. since they could be seen as the manifestations of us not being able to come up with a national educational policy that has in mind the good of the collective, as opposed to the benefit of individuals in the market place.

We agree with the observations of B&P that the spread of violence in politics in the country has affected the democratic political space.

It is with the 1971 insurrection that for the first time the post-Independence Sri Lankan state was threatened with violent take over. Even the traditional left parties supported the then government in suppressing the insurrection. When not only the state but even civilian life was threatened with terrorism in the South in the 87-90 period and then by the LTTE’s terrorist campaign, protecting democracy became a priority in the minds of the public and many therefore chose to support the state in silence. It may not be an irony that a society which condemns violence in its basic beliefs had come to tolerate such violence in order to protect democracy. However the young who experienced the naked brutality of political violence in the 87-90 period for the first time in their lives would have no doubt begun to question the values upheld by their society. The breeding of political violence on a wide scale has undoubtedly dulled our sensibilities, but can we say that as a society we have lost the capacity to determine what is ‘right’ from what is ‘wrong’ due to such violence?

Urbanisation and the modernisation of Sri Lankan society occurred throughout the colonial and postcolonial periods. Modernisation can be absorbed by any society as long as it takes place at its own pace, without being a violent imposition. The phenomenon of Urban Buddhism has been recognised in modern Sri Lanka in different forms, a key variant of which has been named Olcott Buddhism.

the resurgence of Sinhala nationalism

A desire for an authoritarian leader in post independence Sri Lanka is not necessarily related to the rise of Sinhala nationalism. In Sri Lanka, the emergence of nationalism has occurred in several waves, first emerging in the anti-colonial period, to resurface in the post independence Bandaranaike era and now rear its head again in the aftermath of the newly liberalised economy of the 80s.

Due to anti-colonial sentiments during the latter part of British rule, there was a strong Sinhala as well as Tamil nationalist movement and none of the two did represented a desire for an authoritarian leader.

In the early post-colonial period Sinhala nationalism was both anti-imperialist and anti-elitist. In the earlier phase of Sinhala nationalism which brought Bandaranaike to power in 1956, there were no signs of a desire for an authoritarian leader, something which Bandaranaike was not. The next resurgence of Sinhala nationalism comes in the wake of liberalised economy under the JRJ regime. In 1987, the Indo-Lanka peace accord aroused anti-Indian nationalist sentiments. The JVP took a nationalist stand against the Indian intervention in the war against the LTTE and the imposition of the Indo-Lanka Peace Accord and the Provincial Councils Act.
Thus, JRJ became the first manifestation of our desire for an authoritarian leader. However, authoritarian JRJ did not ride to power on Sinhala nationalism. Next, people identified Premadasa as the benevolent authoritarian leader we have been waiting for.

It was Sarachchandra who was a liberal in his thinking who fired the first salvo against the consumerism spawned by the liberalised economy by writing Dharmishta Samajaya. JRJ, having campaigned for a "Dharmishta Society," revealed his true intentions at the ACBC Hall when Sarachchandra launched his "Dharmista Samajaya" by getting party henchmen led by the JSS leader Piyasena S. Jayaweera of the UNP, to mercilessly assault Prof. Sarathchandra and the Ven. Maduluwawe Sobhitha Thero and others who attended the launching ceremony. (see, “JRJ: Farsighted statesman?”Savimon Urugodawatta, The Island, Sat, May 9, 2009)

In our view, in this present era of globalisation there is a resurgence of nationalism in Sri Lanka mainly due to the response of the Sinhala intelligentsia to the call of the Jathika Chinthanaya. The JVP’s turn to nationalism and the creation of the PNM and the JHU are some of the outcomes of this process.

The resurgence of Sinhala nationalism in the ‘post-liberalised-economy period’ in Sri Lanka has to be traced to Gunadasa Amarasekera and Nalin de Silva. If Amarsekera’s Jathika Chinthanaya, together with Nalin de Silva’s activities in the Chinthana Parshdaya is what prompted the resurgence of Sinhala nationalism in the post 1977 era, the shift of JVP politics towards the Jathika Chinthanaya and the setting up of the National Patriotic Front initially with JVP involvement is what rallied the masses around Jathika Chinthanaya.

Amarasekera’s and de Silva’s Jathika Chinthanaya was initially developed as a critique of the traditional Left of Sri Lanka’s inability to be sensitive to local cultural traditions in formulating their political programmes. The suggestion was that in order to make the Left political agenda successful, its ideology, nationalist thinking, must be incorporated into the mix. The Jathika Chinthanaya was meant to be a critique of capitalism and modernity. While Amarasekera was busy winning over the JVPers to the Jathika Chinthanaya, it is the war against the LTTE that propelled Mahinda Rajapakse to national political leadership with the intervention of Buddhist Sangha who cleverly maneuvered MR’s rise to political leadership in the country by blessing him with their official recognition. By this process the Jathika Chinthanya itself became the spearhead of the anti-LTTE movement.

What brought Mahinda Rajapakse to power as President in 2005 was the desire on the part of the people of Sri Lanka to defeat the LTTE. It is highly questionable whether the sense of gratitude which members of the public across the spectrum of various strata seem to have towards the Rajapakse regime for ending the war can be put down mere chauvanism.

why nationalism?

Our argument was that those who rallied around Sinhala nationalism represented a desire on the part of the public to preserve a sense of collectivity that would uphold values which had been eroding due to the impact of globalisation.

It is our view that what globalisation, with the increasing commoditisation of all social spaces and relations including culture and art, threatened to do away with was the traditional values in society which gave a sense of collectivity to people. Hence, we propose that it brings out resistance from those who value a form of collective life that gives identity to them through creating a culture and a civilization.

We wish to argue that this sense of collectivity in the past was based mainly on an understanding of being members of a community centered on being Buddhist. Gananath Obeysekera in an article titled “Buddhism, Ethnicity and Identity: A Problem of Buddhist History” has described this sense of the Buddhist collective as being built in the past on the notion of the Sasana and not the Jathiya or nation as such.

Obeyesekera writes that “Buddhists had a conception of a trans-local cultural consciousness that was conceptualized in the notion of sasana. Our conception of sasana is a "form of nationhood" constructed by the ethnographer on the basis of a phenomenological reality existing in [the] Sri Lankan culture and consciousness.”

Thus if in pre modern times the Sinhalese had the perception of being members of a collective identified as the sasana, a community of Buddhsits, we would argue that with globalization when the values of Buddhism have come increasingly under threat due to consumerism and commoditization it is the desire for Buddhists to preserve their values that nationalism utilises to its advantage. The impact of capitalism and modernity in the sense not of modernization of infrastructure and the technology but the commoditization of all spheres of life and the spread of liberal individualism threatens to uproot people from their traditions that gave them a sense of belonging and collectivity. While the old forms of collectivity and belonging are being undermined in an increasingly atomising society there are no new forms of solidarity emerging. We could understand with Anthony Smith how when the cultural existence of a people is threatened their last refuge becomes the ethnie, even as the notion of a Sinhala nation is an anachronism as much as that of a Tamil nation is one.

Therefore, looking at it through this lens, we see that capitalism and modernity threatens the very foundations of human society. The market logic of capitalism takes into its grip everything collective and consumes and commoditizes every human creation that formerly gave value to human existence. Having a sense of collectivity is merely a human response to the human condition of plurality.

Making social spaces more democratic can be achieved through a sense of politics that recognises the citizen as the centre of politics rather than a representative of a political party. A true democracy would assure freedom to its individuals members, that is, citizens, allowing them to actively participate in the public discourse on collective affairs.

The need to move towards a true democracy and create the socioeconomic, political and cultural conditions necessary for that would require us as a collective to rethink the capability of both capitalism and modernity to sustain humanity and the world. This is not something we can rely on political leaders for. It is a change that has to start at the level of the individual citizen.

Thus, in penning this article, we hope to contribute to such a discourse, even in a minor way, and encourage people to begin talking about how we can create an environment in which the citizen once again becomes the centre of society.

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