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Legitimacy and Crisis in Sri Lanka

[MISC, Monday, 27 February 2012 14:13 No Comment]

(By: Ahilan Kadirgamar) Newer challenges to the legitimacy of the regime and the state have emerged in Sri Lanka – primarily through international pressure given its dirty war record and on its failure to act upon promises to resolve the ethnic conflict, apart from the deepening of the economic crisis in the island. It is expected that state brutality and repression are likely to be unleashed on social struggles within the country, whose successes depend upon bringing about reconciliation among the various ethnic groups apart from privileging class in such struggles.

Ahilan Kadirgamar (ahilan.kadirgamar@gmail.com) is an activist with the South Asia Solidarity

These levels range from the relations between international forces (one would insert here the notes written on what a great power is, on the combinations of States in hegemonic systems, and hence on the concept of independence and sovereignty as far as small and medium powers are concerned) to the objective relations within society – in other words, the degree of development of productive forces; to relations of political force and those between parties (hegemonic systems within the State); and to immediate (or potential military) political relations.

–Antonio Gramsci, Prison Notebooks

In February 2002, a Norwegian brokered Ceasefire Agreement (CFA) was signed between the Government of Sri Lanka and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). That CFA and the internationalised peace process greatly l­egitimised the LTTE. The latter then went on to boast that it had an invincible conventional military and a viable state structure. But this very legitimacy proved to be the Achilles’ heel, with it unable to sustain its claims due to its fascist political culture. It could not survive without political killings and child recruitment. With the split of its eastern command, the LTTE’s military dominance and ideological hegemony began to unravel, and it escalated its naked brutality and armed hostilities. With dissent in the Tamil community brewing, and many western states banning the LTTE, it suffered a crisis of legitimacy, which it attempted to recover through war leading to its suicidal defeat.

Ten years later, February is turning out to be a month where the Mahinda Rajapaksa-led regime is beginning to face a crisis of legitimacy. Its single major claim that it defeated the ruthless LTTE – the war victory led to political consolidation through massive gains in post-war elections in the south – is now losing appeal in the face of an emer­gent economic crisis. Last year, there was months of strike action by the u­ni­versity teachers, sustained student protests o­­pposing the militarisation of universities and a major protest in the “free trade zone” leading to the shelving of a controversial pension bill. However, it is over the last few weeks that dissent and protests are stirring Sri Lankan society even with the opposition shamefully in shambles. Here, protests by students and univer­sity teachers led to the shelving of a bill to privatise university education. Nurses, doctors and utility workers in the public sector have struck; a wildcat strike by railway workers crippled transportation for a day and a major prison uprising in Colombo exposed prison conditions.

In the meantime, the release of the much awaited report on the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) saw shuttle diplomacy by both I­ndia and the US. Indian External Affairs Minister S M Krishna’s visit raised hopes of an agreement between the government and the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) towards a political solution. But that did not materialise, and in fact, ended in a snub with President Rajapaksa denying the claim of minister S M Krishna that he had agreed to the full implementation of the 13th Amendment and to go beyond it. As opposed to the gentle a­pproach of India, a string of visiting US o­fficials culminated in under secretary for civilian security and human rights, Maria Otero and assistant secretary for central and south Asian affairs Robert Blake announcing during a press con­ference before their departure that the US will support a resolution against Sri Lanka at the upcoming UN Human Rights Council session. They stated that such a resolution in March will state that the government has not done enough to implement the recommendations of the LLRC.

A visiting delegation from the Inter­national Monetary Fund (IMF) in turn said very little in public, but clearly raised concerns about possible balance of payments problems with increasing trade deficit, falling foreign reserves and an unsustainable rupee peg. Those concerns added to increasing global oil prices and US sanctions on Iran, from where Sri Lanka imports close to 90% of its oil. In the week after the IMF visit, the government began depreciating the rupee and announced major fuel price hikes of 12%, 37% and 49% for petrol, diesel and kerosene respectively. The days after the price hikes have seen protests and public resentment on a scale unknown in recent times and the government is attempting to appease various constituencies by promising subsidies.

The crystallisation of these three forms of pressures – towards a political solution led by India, on accountability and reconciliation led by the US and the p­rotest mobilisations linked to the economic problems – has shifted the terrain of politics and are posing significant challenges to the Rajapaksa regime. These pressures have to be seen in light of the regime’s post-war approach, where neo-liberal development was put forward as the sole solution to the country’s woes. The post-war opportunity for greater democratisation while addressing the postcolonial problem of the state’s relationship to the minorities and society more broadly, for all intents and purposes, has been squandered in the interest of neo-liberal development and the r­egime’s own consolidation of oligarchic power. In this context, the central question I wish to address here is the relationship between international pressures and social struggles in Sri Lanka.

Gramsci on Relations of Forces

The articulation of the current conjuncture inevitably takes me to Antonio Gramsci’s Prison Notebooks, and the well-known section “Analysis of Situations: Relations of Force”. My return to Gramsci at the current moment is also to address certain lapses in analyses. It was in the late 1970s that Lankan intellectuals such as Newton Gunasinghe (Perera 1996) introduced Gramsci’s ideas into the analyses of politics in Sri Lanka. Such engaged research began to peter out in the mid-1980s with the onslaught of war and militarisation, the decline of the left, the NGOisation of research and the weakening of universities. It is my contention that the move away from Marxist analyses and disengagement with critiques of colonialism and imperialism have both constrained political analysis and stunted political engagement in Sri Lanka.

Gramsci’s analysis, as reflected in the epigraph above, illustrates the complex relationship and dynamics between hegemonic powers, local social processes, national politics and militarised resolutions, and identifies four levels of relations of forces: (1) international relations bet­ween hegemonic powers and small states guarding their sovereignty, (2) relations of social forces or the class question, (3) relations of political forces or the state including political parties, and (4) relations of military forces resolved through wars and insurrections. For Gramsci, each of these four levels of relations impinge on each other and are subject to the historical situations and conjunctural shifts that lead to a certain equilibrium in the overall relations of forces.

Now, I would like to narrow my question to addressing the relations of forces at the current moment in Sri Lanka. First, with the decisive end to the protracted war, I assume that the relations of military force are not relevant here. Gramsci’s use of the relations of military force is about the possibilities of wars and insurrections, rather than militarised repression as characteristic in Sri Lanka now. If anything, such r­elations of military force in the past have produced the terrain of current politics; the last phase of the war and military victory consolidated the R­aja­paksa regime and led to the war crimes debate. Furthermore, Sri Lanka is neither of geopolitical importance for i­nter­national military intervention nor will another insurrection emerge given the massive human loss over the last four decades and the overwhelming power of the repressive state apparatuses.

Next, I also leave out the larger question of social transformation and emancipation, including aspects about the relations of social forces as they impinge on such transformative change; these include fundamental changes to the relations of production and the capture of state power. Gramsci using the metaphor of war speaks of the “war of position” and the “war of movement”. The former characterises historical periods when regimes have consolidated power and the priority is political work waging ideological struggle to dislodge the hege­mony of such regimes and the latter characterises conjunctures when major historical and poli­tical shifts including the capture of state power is possible. While drawing on Gramsci’s theoretical breadth and depth engaging the interaction between econo­mic and political forces and larger questions on the transformation of state and society, my problem here is a limited one within the terrain of the “war of position” about international pressures and social struggles in contemporary Sri Lanka.

International Pressure

My concerns then are about aspects of the political situation with a hegemonic regime facing an adverse international climate. Now, many Sri Lankan actors – including sizeable sections of liberals and Tamil nationalists – have been counting on international pressure to bring about political change in Sri L­anka. However, some would argue that over the last three years, the R­ajapaksa regime has strengthened its position nationally by mobilising against such international pressure; it has swept consecutive elections and nurtured Sinhala Buddhist n­ationalism by claiming to protect Sri Lanka’s sovereignty. In the process, debates on reconciliation and a political s­olution have been polarised, by wilfully conflating the concerns of minorities with perceived and exaggerated threats of pro-LTTE sections of the Tamil diaspora mobilising international intervention.

In this context, I want to analyse three images of external forces at work. I will return to Gramsci and the analysis of my problem after a brief sketch of these international pressures; on alleged war crimes, accountability and reconciliation; towards a political solution to the ethnic conflict and, reinforcing the neoliberal economy.

War Crimes, Accountability and Reconciliation

In response to the question of war crimes during the catastrophic end to the war and concerns around lack of post-war reconciliation, the Rajapaksa regime asserts the prerogatives of national sovereignty through militarisation and nationalist discourse. Western pressure in turn builds on neocolonial discourses of “humanitarian intervention” and “responsibility to protect” to possibly push for international condemnation and international investigation of war crimes. While there have been many aggressive statements made both by the Sri Lankan state and those that oppose its current posture, there have been two significant interventions that have been productive. Those are the reports of the United ­Nations Secretary-General’s Panel of Experts and the LLRC. These two reports, despite their constraints and limitations in terms of mandate, access, and composition, have provided recommendations for a way out of the impasse between the government and its critics in the international arena. Both these reports have valuable recommendations. For example, both reports have called for demilitarisation, an end to the culture of impunity, addressing the large number of disappearances, accountability for human rights abuses and progress towards r­e­­­conciliation. The more attention given to such recommendations and the more l­ocal actors mobilise around them to push for changes in state policy, the better.

On the other hand, the debate on war crimes and reconciliation has been constructed on a moral plane with importance given to principles of accountability and responsibility. This debate can create moral outrage at best and has not found traction at the level of social struggles. The focus of the war crimes campaign on the last phase of the war loses the potential to engage broader constituencies that have suffered with the war. Furthermore, given the centrality of the western media in this campaign, the breadth of reconciliation is often reduced to a simplistic Sinhalese-Tamil problem and largely overlooks ethnic, regional and religious polarisation as well as gendered suffering and dispossession that came with militarisation and the war; the eviction of northern Muslims, the predicament of Sinhalese border villages and the poverty and insecurity facing women-headed households, being some important examples.

Next, I remain sceptical about the Rajapaksa regime addressing reconciliation. Even in the face of formidable pressure, the regime is unlikely to break from its Sinhala Buddhist nationalist leanings and base, for that would involve political risks of drastically changing its ideological base constructed over the last six years with war and militarisation. Furthermore, meaningful reconciliation has to be linked to progressive political change, and can only be engendered by social and political forces on the ground rebuilding inter-ethnic relations, pushing for demo­cratisation and shaping state reform. There might be a tension if not a contradiction between western pressure pushing the regime and local actors struggling for reconciliation. This conundrum raises challenges for analysis; western pressure initiated the LLRC process but also enabled mobilisation of Sinhala Buddhist nationalism. Furthermore, implementing the progressive re­commendations of the LLRC cannot be achieved by penalties on the regime, but will require struggles on the ground drastically shifting the terms of the relationship between the regime, the state and society.

Towards a Political Solution

This brings me to international pressure, mainly led by India, towards a political solution to the ethnic question through constitutional and state reform. This long-standing Indian policy on Sri Lanka calling for power-sharing and devolution of power has also been the demand of those inside the country struggling to resolve the national question within a united Lanka. Here the dominant Tamil parliamentary party and the main vehicle of Tamil nationalism in the post-war era, the TNA has been strengthened by I­ndian pressure and is negotiating with the government on the contours of a p­olitical solution. Such on and off negotiations continue after close to three years since the work by the All Party Representative Com­mittee (APRC), which despite important recommendations has been buried by the president. In fact, the president has been anything but sincere with respect to the issue of a political s­olution, as he now rejects devolution of land and police powers to the provinces. Furthermore, the only constitutional change made in the post-war context is the undemocratic 18th Amendment which further centralises state power and removes the two term limit of the presidency.

Again, despite the intransigence from the president, the debates around constitutional reform are important to raise larger political questions about the state’s relationship to the minorities and the process of post-war democratisation. Yet, there are also limits to the politics of this form of reform, which is now reduced to top-down constitutional tinkering. Negotiations have become about pushing and pulling on the d­etails of powers, rather than transforming the legal structure of the state and its relationship to society. Indeed, a transformative political process committed to social justice should engage the relationship of class, gender, caste and uneven development to power-sharing and devolution.

Without a broader national debate and the coalescing of social forces to address the problems with the state, progressive political change is unlikely. Here, the TNA’s excessive reliance on Indian and western pressure may undermine its ability to create the broader alliances necessary to bring about state reform. That would also require the TNA to rethink its own Tamil nationalist politics. The TNA’s rejection of the LLRC report, focusing on concerns of international law in relation to accountability, was a clear reflection of its lack of political imagination. A party that claims to represent Tamil politics after being decimated by the LTTE needs to work towards changing the terms of the political equation between the ruling regime, the state, political parties and the larger population. The LLRC report was an opportunity for a political response to link the devolution debate, demilitarisation and reconciliation to progressive struggles for democratisation – an approach the TNA is failing to recognise. Such linkages to broader politics are important for the implementation of any future constitutional settlement, given the tendency of the regime and the state to undermine power-sharing.

Reinforcing Neo-liberalism

The third form of international pressure is the overwhelming power of global finance capital and neo-liberal forces now shaping the economy. This is not fully recognised as international pressure at the moment as the Rajapaksa regime has willingly embraced the neo-liberal project and has been actively liberalising the capital markets, selling billions of dollars in sovereign bonds – despite its assertion of national sovereignty – and counting on the stock market and a real estate boom tied to the tourist industry to solve its economic problems. The r­egime has focused on building large i­nfrastructure while little has been done to address the increasing inequalities and uneven development. Such p­olicies have found considerable support from neoliberal institutions including the IMF, World Bank and international rating agencies. Indeed, Gramsci’s astute analysis articulated the interaction bet­ween hegemonic ideologies in the international realm and politics within n­ation states:

It is also necessary to take into account the fact that international relations intertwine with [the] internal relations of nation-states, creating new, unique and historically concrete combinations. A particular ideology, for instance, born in a highly developed country, is disseminated in less developed countries, impinging on the local interplay of combinations.

Neo-liberalism is such an ideology that can both work at the level of international pressure and an ideology embraced by a regime at the national level. There is a subtle distinction here between the Rajapaksa regime and other client regimes directly controlled by imperialist power; while the Rajapaksa regime has a tense relationship with global and regional hegemonic powers such as the US and India, it is nevertheless beholden to the neo­liberal ideology and global finance capital. The post-war economic policies can be characterised as a second wave of ­neo-liberalism, reflected clearly in the bud­gets announced in November 2010 and 2011, which promoted the financialisation of the economy particularly through tax and banking reform.

Now, all is not rosy on the economic front; a collapsing stock market, balance of payments concerns leading to rupee depreciation and major fuel price hikes in the face of an increasing import bill are giving the regime jitters, and it is desperately attempting others measures of liberalisation. It is the culmination of such neo-liberal policies aggravated by global market forces that have led to the emergent economic crisis and the major protests in February. The point here is that the pressures of the global economy are creating forms of resistance that extend deep into the body politic of society.

The weeks and months ahead are likely to be eventful. The US led western pressure could censure Sri Lanka for lack of progress on reconciliation and the war crimes issues at the UN Human Rights Council sessions leading to further embroilment in UN mechanisms. The Indian pressure coupled with such western pressure could shift the president’s position on limited constitutional reform. The mounting economic pressures and active resistance might see the regime beginning to lose its s­ocial base.

One important question here, with respect to the three images of international pressure I have sketched above, is why economic pressures get so little attention? Both progressive social movements outside the country concerned about solidarity and liberal circles inside the country looking for liberal political change do not seem to engage the fall out of neo-liberalism. Should not solidarity and struggle with respect to post-war change be far more attuned to economic dispossession and struggles for social justice? Is it apathy, ideology or class bias that disregards the fallout of such economic pressures?

Relations of Social Forces

Returning to Gramsci, have we become too accustomed to focusing on international relations and the relations of political forces, where we have lost sight of the fundamental relations of social forces? The Rajapaksa regime’s legitimacy impinges more on social and political forces inside the country than on international law – the latter also has problematic colonial and imperialistic underpinnings. This does not mean that the international realm does not matter as it is clear that the instances of social struggles discussed above relate to global finance capital and the neo-liberal economy. Rather, it suggests that the lens of global or regional hegemonic powers and the priorities of ruling regimes and states displace the politics of social struggles. If we take the current debates around reconciliation and political solution in particular, while the issues themselves are important, the problem is the reification of these issues when constituted in international pressure. These issues lose their political edge to pry open progressive political space when they are severed from social struggles.

The vantage point of the relations of social forces can reveal the contradictions that may not be apparent in international relations and the assertions of states and regimes. Even as western pressure mounts on the Rajapaksa regime, finance capital from the west is complicit in the dispossession of large sections of the population through the regime’s neo-liberal policies. Similarly, while India mounts pressure for state reform in the interests of minorities, Indian bilateral aid and Foreign Direct Investment is complicit in certain infrastructure projects that dispossess rural minority communities. This discussion of neo-liberal economic dispossession, points to the complex tension between international pressures, ruling regime’s moves and social struggles. With respect to dislodging the authoritarian grip of the Rajapaksa regime, the process and the struggles by which political space is created is also important, and that is where the analysis of the interrelationship between the different levels of the relations of forces is important.

For Gramsci, such analysis of relations of forces is tied to the question of praxis. That is the relationship between theory and practice:

[T]he most important observation to be made about any concrete analysis of the relations of force is the following: that such analyses cannot and must not be ends in themselves (unless the intention is merely to write a chapter in past history), but acquire significance only if they serve to justify a particular practical activity, or initiative of will. They reveal the points of least resistance, at which the force of will can be most fruitfully applied; they suggest immediate tactical operations; they indicate how a campaign of political agitation may best be launched, what language will be best understood by the masses, etc.

Thus, the starting point of analysis i­tself must be an engaged commitment to social struggles, as opposed to abstract ideals of accountability, reconciliation and constitutionalism.

In recent decades, influential neo-­colonial and neo-liberal discourses blatantly assert the interests of hegemonic actors, whether they are powerful states or global finance capital. Equally problematic have been the mainstream liberal disciplines of political science and international relations, which through their commissions and omissions have privileged the interests of nation states and narrowly defined politics to the realm of legitimacy and law. Their scope is restricted to questions of sovereignty and intervention, of international and constitutional law, and the field of liberal democratic states including elections, governance and the rule of law. It is the privileging of such discourses and mainstream disciplines and what they claim as “common sense” that might also explain the dominant explanations of international pressures in Sri Lanka.

Gramsci’s theorisation of the relations of forces, on the other hand, can bring to the fore the central question of class, the silencing of subaltern struggles, the distinction between the regime and state and the problem of imperialism. An earlier generation of Lankan Marxist intellectuals engaged with such an approach and their work could be developed to address our changed context. Such an analysis today should engage with the mounting social struggles including the range of trade unions involved in strike action for wage increases, the prisoners rebelling against prison conditions and the fishing community challenging fuel price hikes. A significant move saw the southern and northern fishing communities joining forces in their struggle against fuel price hikes, characterising a scale of north-south solidarity not seen in decades. This was a welcome form of political imagination and an instance of “bottom-up” reconciliation.

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