The worst thing about Hambantota is Trincomalee. The Chinese are not our neighbours; we have no border with China and thus no deeply inscribed history of incursions and annexation; there is no Chinese minority on the island and China never intervened in our conflicts or supported cross-border terrorism. The real danger about Hambantota is that the Indians, whose underbelly is Tamil Nadu, will feel it necessary to redouble the squeeze on this puppet government which is greedy, bankrupt and spineless. This is not the UNP of President Premadasa, the author of “Golu Muhuda”, who sent back the 70,000-strong IPKF.
The real battleground is Trincomalee and the surrounding North and East, which is 18 miles from Tamil Nadu. That’s the decisive looming battle. If, as the Sri Lankan PM has promised the Indian PM in writing (Minister Malik Samarawickrama signed the MoU for GoSL), the Trinco oil tank farm, the ‘development’ of the Port, and the Mannar–Trinco/Mannar-Kilinochchi highways are given to the Indians, ETCA signed, and the North and East granted quasi-federal powers through a Constitutional change, this island would permanently lose control over its Northeastern periphery-cum-buffer. As a state, we would become geopolitically smaller and more vulnerable to our giant neighbour.
In Mexico, the Zapatistas led by the enigmatic, iconic Subcommandante Marcos in his ski-mask, began their almost bloodless armed uprising on the day in 1994 that NAFTA, the North American Free Trade Agreement, was signed—and the existential threat posed by NAFTA to Mexico was far less than that posed either by ETCA or the acquisition of Trincomalee by India. Where are the 21st century Puran Appus?
Meanwhile, have you noticed that every major, mainstream political formation in Sri Lanka had controversies in the past several weeks? The TNA had a problem with the NPC and Wigneswaran; the UNP members of the Cabinet lined up for and against UNP Minister Wijeyadasa Rajapakshe’s stout defence of Sri Lanka against hostile UN officials; Weerawansa’s NFF rocked the JO boat by criticizing participation in the Steering Committee on constitutional change; the SLFP and UNP contradictions are growing; and the official SLFP has dissenters who are threatening to quit the government in the next few weeks. These are but symptoms of the crisis spreading.
A Sinhala language journalist, a young university graduate with an honours degree, interviewed me extensively the other day for a periodical. As I criticized the government for the shutdown of the local authorities, she quietly interrupted me to say that her kid brother had died of dengue because fumigation by the local authorities had stopped– adding that another youngster, a student of Moratuwa University, had been turned away by the hospital as his platelet count had not yet descended to the level that is now deemed necessary for admission to overcrowded hospitals. The lad returned to his boarding and died the next day.
How many more people will die of diseases and manmade disasters when the government succeeds in postponing Provincial Council elections, with the attendant crippling of the essential health and welfare functions carried out by those elected authorities? Taken together with the non-holding of local authorities’ elections, the postponement of provincial council elections will paralyze the state system from the waist down. The System isn’t working—and it’s the government’s fault.
A sagacious government usually calls an election of some sort to let off the steam, divide the opposition and retard its momentum. This government has postponed local government elections for over two years and continues to do so, while preparing to postpone the Provincial Council elections as well. This further delegitimizes the government while continuing to channel dissent onto the streets rather than into the polling booth.
What are the roots of the crisis?
Polarizing policies: the policies of the government are not those which lend themselves to a stable consensus or even equilibrium between the two wings of the government. Instead the policies are so far out in right field that the constitutional policies sharpen the contradictions between the UNP and official SLFP; the economic policies have led to a backlash from the SLFP unions, caused a visible fissure within the official SLFP and will a probably trigger a breakaway in a few weeks; the external policies (e.g. Geneva) have led to open dissent even within the UNP.
Polarizing personalities & discourse: Prime Minister Wickremesinghe and a handful of Ministers (Mangala, Kiriella, Rajitha, and Fonseka) have a confrontational style and discourse which causes polarization in and out of parliament and triggers a backlash from the most diverse social sectors, from secular radical students to fundamentalist Buddhist clergy. The government is creating its own siege.
Bipolar disorder and the crisis of the model: the so-called unity government is bipolar and there is a Cold War between the UNP and the ‘official’ SLFP centering on the very model of the state itself, with the UNP pushing for the abolition of the executive presidency and introduction of de facto federalism or at least the dilution of the unitary state, while the SLFP by contrast argues for the retention of the unitary state and the executive presidency and advocates moderate constitutional amendments, not complete replacement.
Crisis of representation and legitimacy: The results of the August 2015 general election have not been respected and have been tampered with, post facto. The UNP obtained 106 members, the SLFP running on a platform against a coalition with the UNP, won 95. Instead of mirroring this verdict, a coalition was formed with the UNP through top-down manipulation. Adding insult to injury, the 52 members of the Opposition who remained faithful to their August 2015 mandate were not recognized as the Parliamentary Opposition and the 16 member TNA holds the post of Opposition Leader.
As the government moves to implement its polarizing policies, protests will proliferate. A single violent death or crippling at the hands of the government, and protests from below will render the place chronically ungovernable. The Rajapaksa administration functioned as that well-known post-Cold War phenomenon, an illiberal democracy. However, if the regular holding of elections and the respect for a functioning, competitive two party system is the hallmark of a liberal democracy, then the Yahapalana administration is either (a) more liberal than it is democratic or (b) is neither liberal nor democratic.
While neoliberalism can be implemented in the developed West within a liberal democratic system and the fallout contained within it even as it causes social crises, in the global South by contrast, the neoliberal economic agenda can be taken to the extremes that Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe wants to, only within an undemocratic political system. In countries of the global South, economic free-market fundamentalism cannot accommodate an untrammelled political free market; it needs the shutdown of a competitive political marketplace.
This is why the PM and his cohort of co-thinkers are attempting to wrest power through Constitutional change. This is why the TNA and not the JO is the official Opposition, and Sampanthan, not Dinesh, is the Opposition Leader. This is why the UNP hopes to enable land sales to multinational corporations through quasi-federalization of Provincial Councils.
This is why the Tamil Diaspora is more of an ally for the UNP than is the SLFP. This is why Ministers are bought up with Diaspora ‘black money’. This is why there is a creeping institutional coup and choke points within the State apparatuses are being occupied by pro-UNP, pro-US-India personnel, encircling and besieging President Sirisena. This is why the war winning military is seen as an enemy and the Geneva resolutions have been co-sponsored. This is why local government and Provincial Council elections will be repeatedly postponed. This is why goons, the police and the STF are unleashed to suppress student and trade union dissent. None of this will end well.