Article first published in the Colombo Telegraph
The attempted coup following Sri Lanka’s presidential election by ousted incumbent Mahinda Rajapaksa, was spoiled when his long-time allies switched their loyalty. Many of those who went over to the opposition had supported the murderous war against the Tamil minority in the past. In the aftermath of the massacre they either watched in silence or gave vociferous support to Mahinda in his attempt to bury the truth about what happened during the war. Likewise his accumulation of dictatorial powers. What stuck in their craw was not so much Mahinda’s bloody record against Tamils and Sinhala workers and poor, but the concentration of power and the wealth in the hands of his family. The benefits of Chinese investment and economic gain have not been shared out among the political elite and the capitalists; instead swallowed up by one family and their cronies.
It is not, however, a surprise that the new Maithri government is in a way protecting the Mahinda family from any war crimes accusations. We could throw a number of questions at Maithri and Co. Why are you still hiding the details of the attempted coup? Why didn’t you reveal the details of the whereabouts of ex-defence minister Gotabaya Rajapaksa and other members of Mahinda’s family? Why did you allow former minister of economic development Basil Rajapaksa to leave the country without investigating how much money he had already transferred to the US?
In the election the masses got rid of the self-named ‘devil they know’. But they have now ended up with an uncertain situation. As per the election results Mahinda still has a 200,000+ vote lead on Maithri if we discount the North and East vote. However it’s no secret that he used all sorts of dirty tricks to pull the voters. Even the commonwealth office (of which he was head) noted that an “inadequate electoral and legal framework coupled with an unequal pre-electoral environment means that this electoral contest did not comply with all the key benchmarks for democratic elections”.
However the election defeat is not a complete defeat for a Sinhala chauvinism. We should be aware that even a small section of Mahinda’s supporters could mobilise to disrupt any attempted progress away from dictatorial rule. Whether his family or his supporters make a comeback in the next general election or not is linked to how the whole situation and all aspects of society develop. This question is also linked to the potential for Maithri’s 100-day programme to be realised and maintained. A serious re thinking of social organisation is necessary.
From pay rises to protection of state education, on the list of promises in the 100-day programme there are some proposals that if delivered would improve the conditions of the working and poor masses. But there must be vigilance to push for their realisation – we should ask the question of how this can be done on the basis of the current profit motive system. The defence budget can be reduced enormously. The more than 200,000-strong military can be reduced with more public sector jobs created. But these efforts alone will not provide enough resources to maintain the better conditions for all the working and poor people in Sri Lanka. A programme and strategy relentlessly in favour of the masses is demanded to insure these measures meet the expectations they’re arousing. Taking the commanding heights of the economy into the hands of the state and running them democratically and a drive towards implementing a democratic planned economy is one way of delivering a great deal of ‘betterness’ to the masses.
However this will be resisted vehemently by the capitalists and by the institutions of imperialism. The IMF in the past rejected requests for further loans on the grounds that the government had not reduced the budget deficit and it wanted more ‘reforms’ to be implemented. In the IMF terminology ‘reforms’ mean cuts in public spending and a push on privatisation, deregulation, etc. Prior to the election, the mouthpiece of the capitalists, the British FT, produced an editorial that argued in favour of Mahinda saying that it would be “foolish to switch horses now” and justified it with the following argument:
“A Country at Sri Lanka stage of development can tolerate an authoritarian leader and a bit of crony capitalism so long as it is growing. After all, Park Chung-hee, the architect of South Korea’s ‘miracle on the Han river’, was an autocrat. So in his way, was Singapore’s Lee Kuan yew.”
In summary what they argue is that they are prepared to turn a blind eye to genocide and the suffering of the working and poor in Sri Lanka as long as it ‘grows economically’ and they benefit from this growth.
Does the current government have any intention of colliding with the capitalists to deliver on behalf of workers and poor? Everything they are doing is proving otherwise. Its proposed populist measures should not be a temporary gesture to buy votes for the general election and should not be allowed to evaporate. Without a mass movement developing we cannot put a check on the capitalists retreating from the promised program.
Complying with the demands of the capitalists and meeting the masses’ needs are diametrically opposed to each other. Capitalists would be ‘ruthless’ in terms of implementing neo liberal policies that will have disastrous consequences for the masses. And of course there is another important question – how can the national aspirations of Tamils be addressed?
Possibly if Mahinda had taken a ‘western turn’ he would have been protected by the west as was the case during the war. The western states continue to use the ‘human rights’ threat against many countries to advance their interests and to secure resources, rather than out of any real concern for human rights. Even when they are forced by mass movements in their home countries to act in the face of massacre, they always try to find the way out of it – it is ‘unnecessary expenditure’ for them, a drag in the profit equation. If Maithri shares Ranil’s vision regarding the west then he will almost certainly get the western blessings. Western governments will almost certainly limit their ‘war crime concerns’ to the persecution of the Mahinda family and delivering some small ‘aid’ to the victims.
But the Tamils in Sri Lanka and in the Diaspora are demanding justice – a full justice. Mere compensation or a staged crime investigation will not suffice. Most of them link these demands to the lasting solution for all their problems. What is expressed when they express desire for a separate nation is the demand for a dignified life. That means improved conditions and all democratic rights including language rights of course being allowed. Having gone through decades of suppression the Tamil masses want to have more of a say in how they are governed. These key factors are manifested as part of their national aspiration. Without directly addressing these questions, how can there be a lasting peace? The new president’s ‘address to the nation’ completely ignored this aspect. Like he indicated would prioritise support of the JHU over the Tamils’ aspirations.
Whether Maithri actually implements his promised programme cannot be left to fate to decide. Trade unions and other workers’ organisations and students must begin their mobilisations now in support of these proposals and the democratic nationalisation of the economy. There should be a countrywide discussion about how the masses’ conditions can be improved and maintained. Tamils should mobilise now to put forward their demands and reject the right-wing TNA leaders who are more than happy to sit it out until the general election to weigh their opportunities to be in government ‘positions’ after three months.
Act now rather than regret later.