Sri Lankan Moderate Intelligentsia Does not Stand Up Against Political Immoderation from the Tamil Nationalist Side


Sri Lankan civil society intellectuals and commentators who support the new dispensation are making the same mistake as Francis Fukuyama did, but in a far more facile and therefore far less forgivable form. When the Cold War ended, Fukuyama famously posited the End of History. It was crudely misunderstood to mean that history as a narrative had arrived at a terminus, which is not at all what he meant. Fukuyama had used a Hegelian flourish to indicate the liberal democratic capitalism has triumphed over all other competing ideologies as a paradigm of how society should be ordered.

pic via: @UKinSriLanka: HC John Rankin and TNA Leader R. Sampanthan discussed recent political developments & positive prospects for Sri #Lanka-on Mar 18. 2015

pic via: @UKinSriLanka: HC John Rankin and TNA Leader R. Sampanthan discussed recent political developments & positive prospects for Sri Lanka-on Mar 18. 2015

While there was much more to what he said than what his ignorant critics thought, Fukuyama was wrong in his general prognosis, in his own terms too. Dr. Henry Kissinger’s latest book on World Order is precisely about the competing (regional) visions of how the world should be ordered, and how those competing visions stem from different historical, civilizational, cultural and ideological matrices, or what Dr. Kissinger calls in the volume’s subtitle, “The Character of Nations”.

In Sri Lanka today, cosmopolitan civil society is on a delusional high. Not for the first time it is going against the grain of ‘the character of the nation’. Its neoliberal ideologues and opinion makers are certain that the End of History has arrived and ‘liberal democratic pluralism’ has triumphed. The Sinhalese have reached a stage of enlightenment that has seen the back of the old Statism and is conducive to reaching out to the Northern Tamil nationalists in refashioning the Sri Lanka political order.

The Southern nationalist-populists have been marginalized and their hero Mahinda Rajapaksa is strictly a has-been with a minor band of malcontents. The SLFP is safely in the hands of Chandrika and her proxies. The decades-old order of the strong Presidential state is about to end. A new liberal democratic capitalist order, with a quasi-Westminster model is about to be born. Accountability shall be achieved according to international standards. The UNP and the SLFP shall move hand in hand, under the joint auspices of Ranil and Chandrika, beyond the 13th amendment and towards federalism. China will be shown the door as we reincorporate ourselves as subordinate, peripheral unit in the Western-dominated world order and in an Indo-US dominated regional one.

In fairness it must be said though that Fukuyama was rather regretful about the defeat of the Communist challenge and the victory of liberal capitalism because the Nietzschean in him lamented the end of the age of the heroic ‘wars over ideas’ and the arrival of the individualist consumer; the flea-like last man. The Sri Lankan liberal optimists actually applaud the end of the heroic age and the exit of heroic personalities.

Sri Lankan civil society intelligentsia is suffering from a classic case of false consciousness, in which, as Marx said, “men and their circumstances appear upside down as in a camera obscura”. Its Fukuyama-ist fantasy has begun to come unstuck with the Northern Provincial Council’s political stridency beginning with the landmark Genocide resolution. This signaled the salience of the grim realism of Daniel P. Moynihan (‘Pandemonium’) and Samuel Huntington (‘The Clash of Civilizations’) in place of Fukuyama’s bittersweet optimism.

Three battles are looming over:

(A) the 19th amendment and the hypertrophy of the Prime Ministership at the expense of the elected Presidency

(B) the call to move beyond the 13th amendment towards federalism and

(C) the Geneva OHCHR inquiry on Sri Lanka’s internal war, the new Foreign Minister’s ‘open door’ to the UN Working Group on Involuntary and Enforced Disappearances and his promises of externally “assisted” domestic mechanisms on accountability.

These are but expressions and reflections of contradictions over basics: (I) which political order for Sri Lanka, (II) which center-periphery relationship and Social Contract within the island nation (III) which placement within the world order. The coming parliamentary election is the crucial, but perhaps only the most visible battleground.

Judging by their silence, most neoliberal pluralist commentators think that the political discourse behavior of the Northern Provincial Council and its Chief Minister constitute no big deal; it all amounts to a molehill out of which a mountain shouldn’t be made. Let us, however, get things in perspective. A moderate mainstream Northern Chief Minister successfully moves an 11 page resolution alleging ‘historical and recent genocide’ against the Tamils, committed since 1948 by successive Lankan administrations, and continuing to date. He moves the resolution not against a populist administration of neoconservative bent but precisely on the watch of a new, more moderate Sri Lankan government, having studiedly refrained from doing so under its hawkish predecessor.

Thus a moderate Tamil leader moves an outrageously immoderate resolution under a moderate Government, alleging genocide under all previous governments including moderate ones– and Sri Lankan moderate commentators, here and overseas, do not think it means that something is seriously amiss about mainstream Tamil politics.

The sad truth is that the Sri Lankan moderate intelligentsia does not stand up against political immoderation when it comes from the North; from the Tamil nationalist side. They shriek blue murder from the rooftops when the immoderation or radicalism is sighted in the South. This is not a recipe for an alliance of moderates; it is the appeasement of extremism by moderates. This is no alliance of moderates; it is instead an alliance of ostriches with their heads buried in the sand or of the deaf, dumb and blind monkeys.

My liberal critics cannot understand where I am coming from. I belong to a very old theoretical tradition or more accurately a confluence of two old traditions, one, the Realist-Statist, extending at least from Thucydides, Kautilya and Sun Tzu through Hobbes to Lenin, the other, the Heroic-Messianic-Romantic, from Homer through the Old Testament through to Mao, Fidel and Che.

These two paradigms are akin to the dichotomy which Leo Strauss wrestled with: ‘Athens’ and ‘Jerusalem’. With Carl Schmitt as his wrestling partner, he would develop this idea into the twin paradigms of ‘political’ and ‘theological’.

To my mind both traditions are predicated on or yield as a composite, the assumptions that the world is a dangerous place, that communities and countries have threats based on geography and deducible from the long sweep of history; that there is such a thing as Evil; that existence is a struggle, battle, a war even; that there are causes worth fighting for.

These two great traditions are informed by the categories of ‘friends’ and ‘enemies’. These are not incidental or accidental but quite basic to the framework. It has nothing to do with conspiracy theory. In his World Order, Dr. Henry Kissinger condenses the perspective of Kautilya, the Asian founding father of one of the two traditions I belong to, that of Realism: “…Its moral basis is identical with that of Richelieu who lived nearly two thousand years later: the state is a fragile organization, and the statesman does not have the moral right to risk its survival on ethical restraint”. (p.195)

When Sun Tzu says “know yourself, know your enemy; a thousand battles, a thousand victories”, that is where he is coming from. When Lenin queries “Who-whom? Who prevails over whom? Who wins?” and Mao picks up Sun Tzu a millennium later, posing the question “Who are our friends? Who are our enemies?” and foregrounding the category of ‘antagonistic contradictions’, they are continuing in that same tradition.

Sri Lanka has real enemies. The core and majority of this island nation, the Sinhalese—let me say it again, the Sinhalese – have real enemies, and they aren’t the Tamils or the Muslims. (In fact had I been Muslim I would definitely have voted against Mahinda Rajapaksa.) But there is a (Pan) Tamil secessionist project and a Western geopolitical hegemonic project which are inimical to Sri Lanka and to the Sinhalese.

Given the geography and history of this island state, there are three fundamental challenges and one fundamental vulnerability from which the country has to be protected. The three fundamental challenges are:

1. To protect the island from expansionist impulses from South India, the source of destructive invasions throughout its history.

2. To prevent the breakup of the country through the breakaway of its North-Eastern periphery which is adjacent to South India and therefore subject to the gravitation pull of ethnic kinship.

3. To safeguard the distinctive political identity and destiny, independence and sovereignty, of this island vis-a-vis its giant neighbor as well as from the global North, the source of three colonial incursions.

These three challenges must be seen against the backdrop of the basic vulnerability of this country, namely the combination of its island nature and its size, which makes for lack of defense in depth. It is this vulnerability that Prince Dutugemunu lamented when his mother Vihara Maha Devi asked him why he was sleeping curled up rather than comfortably relaxed. He replied that he could not do so because he felt hemmed in by the Indian Ocean at his back and the Tamil Kingdom before him. That is the quintessential statement of the existential situation of the Sri Lankan state—its lack of defense in depth and the complete unaffordability, especially given the ocean at its back, of permitting a separate, adversarial or potentially hostile Tamil power center in the North of the island.

The Sinhalese are the core and main force of resistance to the breakup of the island state as well as hegemony over it. It cannot be accidental that there wasn’t a single sword raised or shot fired in anger against the British colonialists in the North for one and a half centuries, by the Tamils—who had for millennia, no compunctions about going to war with their Sinhala neighbors and sacking their kingdoms, destroying a fine civilizations. The utter absence of Tamil rebellion against British colonialism is a point that Emeritus Professor KM de Silva, past President of the Association of the Historians of Asia, has made more than once in his scholarly writings. It is also not accidental that liberal-pluralists do not mention that fact in their potted revisionist histories.

It is the duty of the intellectual, most especially the political thinker, to man the watchtower, or less martially, the lighthouse. My perspective is not a search for enemies, still less an invention of them—it is merely recognition of their existence and the threat they pose. It is a refusal to be lulled or to purvey falsehoods and tranquilize the masses or the nation. It is a refusal to go along with the psychological warfare of the enemy; to play the game, however unwittingly of the enemy. It intersects with the task of the class of Guardians in Plato’s hierarchy, albeit transposed to the intellectual plane.

Plato’s allegory of the cave has the figure of the individual who escapes from the cave, sees the reality of the world outside but returns to the cave to inform the other prisoners in the cave of the way things really are. We may observe a distinction between those who never leave, never escape, and those who do but never return. The true intellectual is one who escapes and returns, even (as Plato points out) at the cost of a risk to one’s life. This is roughly analogous to Nietzsche’s figure of Zarathustra who has a cyclical movement of removing himself to his mountain cave and then leaving it and descending into the market place.

In Sri Lanka, the crucial segment of the intelligentsia is not comprised either of Category I, namely those who never leave the cave, or Category II, namely those who were never inhabitants of it or who never come back, but precisely of Category III: those who escape and return. They are also those who make the Nietzschean climb to the solitude of the mountain top and then down to the crowded public square in the valley below.