Misapplying the Middle East model & mode

by Dr Dayan Jayatilleka

(March 09, Paris, Sri Lanka Guardian) The conversation I had on Lankan trajectories and ‘declinist’ discourses in a Paris cafe on a Sunday with my friend and former colleague, Prof. Nira Wickramasingha, now holding the Chair of South Asian History at the University of Leiden, reminded me of a point she had made sharply in her slender book ‘History Writing’. Sri Lanka, she had remarked, was one of the few countries in which mainstream newspapers carried pieces on history by those without any credentials or formal training in the disciplines of history and historiography. This, she wrote, would never happen in India for instance, where any incursion into history in the quality press would have to be backed up with credentials in order to secure publication.

What she said of history is just as true of politics. Sri Lankan newspapers and websites are replete with pieces that go beyond intellectually legitimate critical commentary to the pontifically prescriptive and hortatory -- almost in inverse proportion to academic training and testing in the domain of political studies or any of its sub-fields.

Consider the recent sensationalism in the Sri Lankan press on the relevance and applicability of the popular upsurges in the North African Arab societies. Some Sri Lankan political personalities and commentators ‘read off’ from the Arab revolt, the political future of our island in the most absurdly linear and mechanistic fashion. It is assumed that there is a universal trend which is sweeping the world. This mistake which was made by those of us who assumed that Tet (and Paris) ’68, the victories in Vietnam ’75 and Nicaragua ’79 heralded the triumph of world socialism-- taking the North Vietnamese tank punching through the gates of the presidential palace in Saigon for (Hegel’s) Napoleon on a white charger after the battle of Jena-- was replicated by those who thought that the events of 1989 heralded the worldwide victory of liberal democracy. Be it the vulgarised ‘End of History’ school or its Huntingtonian opponent, the Clash of Civilisations corps; be it the applauders and denouncers of the New World Order and the Uni-polar moment (of neocons gurus like Charles Krauthammer), all these grand theorists have been proven wrong or only episodically and ephemerally right.

All of these meta-theorists forgot the phenomenon that Mao, a far greater philosopher, pointed to: ‘absolutely everything develops unevenly’. This is why the Russian revolution was not successfully replicated or followed in Europe, Vietnam’s liberation was not accompanied anywhere even in its neighbourhood and the Cuban revolution had to wait twenty years for the Nicaraguan counterpart to succeed.

Althusser’s best pupil Regis Debray realised this while in jail, and ruefully observed in ‘A Critique of Arms’ that historical time is not the same everywhere; the clock of history keeps different times in different places, even on the same continent. This he attributed to the autonomy of the political instance, most especially the specificity of ‘the national’ (the Achilles heel of Marxism, he said in a 1977 essay). He has re-developed the thesis in recent months here in Paris, in an intervention termed ‘In Praise of Borders’.

Those who seek to mechanistically apply the Maghreb model to Sri Lanka can only fuel an adventurism which will result in needless sacrifice and retard the very transformations they claim to seek.

Those who assumed that with the collapse of the USSR, an entire historical period of US uni-polar hegemony had arrived confused the conjunctural and episodic for the structural and systemic. Uni-polar hegemony proved but a ‘moment’. Similarly, Sri Lankan political history of the post-independence decades has seen many ‘uni-polar moments’ which were mistaken for and lustily cheered or luridly denounced as dictatorship, fascism etc, but which proved reversible and transitory.

If the hotly debated 18th amendment removing Presidential term limits is the equivalent of Hitler’s Enabling Law of 1933, then the latest candidate for Hitlerhood is Sandinista leader Daniel Ortega and the future Nazi Germany is Nicaragua! The contentious abolition of term limits in no way abolishes the fundamental feature which makes Sri Lanka a democracy, namely the need to win elections held at regular intervals in what is a multiparty representative system where political parties are neither confections nor caricatures, but resilient organic entities.

Ebb and flow must not be mistaken for structural watersheds, just as the role of Bismarck (national state unification through ‘blood and iron’) must not be confused with that of Hitler! Nazi Fascism was defined as ‘open terroristic dictatorship’ by Georgi Dmitrov, foregrounding the crucial characteristic of the violent (often lethal) mass suppression of all forms of opposition. It would be lunatic to describe Sri Lanka thus.

Fortunately for the West, smart political minds are trained to distinguish and differentiate. In conversation in Normandy with centrist/centre-right Senator Nathalie Meriem Goulet, member of the Foreign and the Armed Forces Committee and of the NATO Parliamentary assembly, we concurred that the recent phenomena in the Maghreb were distinguishable from manifestations in Iran: “one is Arab; the other Persian, and there are major differences between the matrices”, she said with lightning lucidity. On almost every count Iran is far closer to Egypt than is Sri Lanka. Similarly, the theorem of a global tsunami sweeping away the political superstructures of the planet would evoke polite smiles among the highly educated strategic and policy elites of East Asia. This is not an argument by me for ‘Asian values’ but a reminder that the universal –the Zeitgeist, even– operates unevenly in terms of time, place, form and outcome. The universal operates through the (regionally and nationally) particular.

The most important single feature of Sri Lanka today is not that a six year old elected administration is in the same category as Arab regimes of decades’ duration – Aristotle, who emphasised the importance of a typology of regimes, would shudder – but the fact that it is barely post-war, living in the shadow of a thirty years war which ended a mere one and a half years ago; struggling to emerge from it, in the throes of a complex convalescence and open ended transition.

The country and its peoples are in no further need of ‘storm and stress’. Sri Lanka’s multiparty democracy has proved resilient under extreme pressure over decades, surviving civil wars in North and South and authoritarian and totalitarian projects from above and below. The Lankan citizenry has no need of tutelage in the preservation and advancement of democracy from anyone, anywhere. Our literate, politically conscious citizenry has proved unerringly adroit at securing and safeguarding its principal interests (variously national, social, and democratic) at the given time, through the determined exercise of the franchise. The agency and medium of democratic change in Sri Lanka must not and cannot be rocks and rifles but the ballot box. Whatever the diversions and detours on the streets, any endgame in Sri Lanka must, will and can only be resolutely electoral and democratic.

(The writer is Honorary Senior Fellow, Institute of South Asian Studies/National University of Singapore).

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