By Dr. Dayan Jayatilleka
Mao Zedong once famously chided a group of young loyalists, saying, “You say you want to make a revolution, but you don’t know where the bourgeoisie is! The bourgeoisie is in the party!” Similarly, I have long wanted to see an “anti-systemic” movement and struggle (to use my old professor, the iconic Immanuel Wallerstein’s concept) but have not known where the most “anti-systemic” element is, in this country. That is until now. But I have changed.
I have had an epiphany. It has dawned on me that the most radical political leader in the country is not Kumara Gunaratnam or KD Lal Kantha, but Ranil Wickremesinghe, and the most dangerously radical political party is not the Frontline Socialist Party (FSP) or the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) but the United National Party (UNP). Is green the new red?
There isn’t a single thing that the three divided streams of the once united JVP propose—and I refer to Anura Kumara’s JVP, Kumar Gunaratnam’s FSP and Wimal Weerawansa’s NFF—that comes even close to wreaking the havoc that the UNP’s present political practices and policy postures are about to inflict upon stability and the System. I’m not joking.
As the song went, “what’s it all about, Alfie?” It’s about retro chic, really. It’s like miniskirts are back in fashion. The UNP’s old behaviour is back on display.
The rhetoric and practices of the UNP leadership show that it is preparing for a showdown with the student movement and the trade union movement led variously by the Frontline Socialists and the JVP.
This preparation for confrontation all around the compass takes place in a context rather different from the 1980s, though—and it is the context that renders the outcome more inevitably incendiary than in the 1980s. At that time the economy was growing fast, all factions of the ruling elite (JR, Lalith, Gamini, Premadasa) had developmental ideas and initiatives, employment was rapidly generated, the place was generally prosperous though war-torn, and political stability assured by the new, presidential Constitution. Today, none of those plus factors are present, while their opposites are.
In an incredible imitation of the past, the PM and his UNP are reviving student radicalism on a mass scale. In the first years of the Jayewardene administration, Wijeweera, the JVP and the university student movement under the latter’s control were quite well-behaved. The trouble started in Kelaniya when UNP goons attacked students, the latter hit back; a goon died and the present PM was at the time a UNP chieftain in Kelaniya.
Then in 1980 Ranil followed up in his capacity of Minister of Education, with a typically bright idea: the White Paper on Education. The student movement rose out of the universities on to the streets, and the repression –including abductions to Sirikotha, baton charging by mounted Police and lethal shooting in 1984—turned the student movement into something like Daenerys’ dragons in ‘Game of Thrones’. Now Mr. Wickremesinghe is back, the UNP is back postponing scheduled elections and it’s “déjà vu all over again”.
As for the stability necessary for a propitious climate of investment, foreign and domestic, nothing is quite as tricky as removing your existing Constitution and replacing it with a whole new one which requires a referendum, and you don’t have a two thirds majority of your own while your own coalition partners are fighting a rear guard action against the entire idea!
The UNP’s present foreign policy is also a throwback to its grand follies of the 1980s which were savagely criticized at the time by Mervyn de Silva. Reading his words, one finds oneself on a time machine, except that the time is now and the “grand illusions” (as he called them) of yesteryear are those which govern our external relations today.
“… The elite presented other bizarre exhibitions of helplessness, bewilderment and naiveté that were soon to be imitated by the middle class intelligentsia. Various theories were put forward like “the Pakistanis are sure to help us…”, “the Marines will come…”, “for God’s sake give them Trinco”, and finally, “the Chinese are bound to come…”
…The island’s nodal position in the Indian ocean and of course Trincomalee, nourished the comforting conviction that Sri Lanka was the hub of the universe, and we ourselves a coveted prize that major external powers (external to the region) with their substantial global and regional interests, will only be too eager to pacify even at the risk of their demonstrably larger interests.
Trinco, the Indian Ocean, the Indo-Soviet Treaty, the Afghanistan crisis, the Gulf War—chanted our middle class intelligentsia. Their innermost thoughts of security, their confident and cherished assumptions of timely rescue and ultimate salvation, voiced with a rowdy exhibitionism by the new exponents of “real” foreign policy and new look nonalignment a la Kirkpatrick, have now been revealed as naive assumptions. These were yesterday’s grand illusions.” (Mervyn de Silva, Sri Lanka’s Ethnic Problem, Center for Society and Religion, October 1984)
As PM in 2001-2004, Mr. Wickremesinghe’s policies of appeasement were the cause and catalyst of a huge Sinhala nationalist backlash which drove the SLFP, JVP and JHU together and carried Mahinda Rajapaksa to the top. I have little doubt that, come the elections of 2019-2020, Mr. Wickremesinghe’s present stint will have resulted in yet another grateful Rajapaksa beneficiary, albeit one who is more ‘Putinist’ than his illustrious predecessor and elder sibling.