Understanding the real battle in Sri Lanka

Author of this article is Dr.Dayan Jayatileka, Distinguished Fellow, INSSSL

This article was originally published in The Sunday Observer

25th November 2018

Views expressed here are his own.

Throughout much of the world today, the fight is between Neoliberalism and Populism; between a certain model, or what is called in Latin America, El Modelo, The (Neoliberal) Model, on the one hand, and the resistance by/backlash from Populism (almost always democratic, sometimes authoritarian-democratic, and often nationalist) on the other.

So too it is in Sri Lanka, though the struggle can be defined far more concretely and with far greater specificity.

The main contradiction, and the main fight, in Sri Lanka today is between neoliberalism and the nation. Or more correctly between, on the one hand, the elite which is the agency of the project of neoliberal globalization and its corollary, the ideology of neoliberal globalism, and the ‘people-nation’ (Gramsci) on the other. Those who accuse the Rajapaksas of ‘neoliberalism’ do not know what neoliberalism is and isn’t.

Neoliberalism is not the capitalist market economy, not mere privatization --the crucial question being what is privatized and what is not. Neoliberalism is not the Open Economy. It is possible to practise an Open Economic policy which is not neoliberal. This is what Presidents Premadasa and Rajapaksa did.

Neoliberalism is not merely an economic policy. It cannot be understood as a checklist of economic policy measures such as privatization.

Neoliberalism is a new stage of imperialism. It can be understood not by economics alone but through Political Economy. That too has to be understood dialectically. Lenin was the most prominent to point out that at a different stage of its development and decomposition, global capitalism abandons its progressive slogans and projects of the past. It is such an abandonment, a negation, that has found form in neoliberalism.

At the heart of neoliberalism is not a list of economic polices but precisely the questions of the Nation and the State.

At an earlier stage of history, the bourgeoisie built up the nation state including in the periphery. However, after its victory in the Cold War, imperialism adopted a policy of dismantling the state and breaking up the nation, both in the economy and in the political domain (national sovereignty) so as to make for unfettered flow of capital and total integration into the world capitalist economy as vassal states.

This policy, which President Putin denounced as “state degradation” at the Energy Week conference which I attended, is at the heart of neoliberal globalism.

Today, the resistance and opposition to neoliberal globalization comes identifiably and generically from the Left only in a few cases, though important ones: Mexico’s Lopez Obrador and Britain’s Corbynist wing of the Labor Party. In general, however, the resistance to neoliberalism across the globe comes from Statism, Populism and Nationalism. These operate usually in some combination, to the point of overlapping and even amalgamating in many instances. The amalgam also takes divergent ideological forms—left, right and centre, e.g. Mexico, Russia, USA/India.

The Rajapaksas are statists. They are also patriots or if you prefer, majoritarian nationalists. They are also populists. They stand or fall on these three legs of a tripod as it were.

These are the three reasons why they are not and by definition cannot be neoliberals or practitioners of neoliberalism. How can they retain their peasant support by permitting the abolition of land ceilings and the opening up of the land market to foreigners? How can they survive by allowing the scrapping of labor laws? How can they retain their support base by allowing the stripping of agrarian subsidies? How can they keep their popularity by allowing preferential tariffs which discriminate against local industry? How can they permit the rollback of all national boundaries and barriers which permit unfettered flow of capital and a swamping on the domestic entrepreneurs?

It is absurd to say the least to trace neoliberalism back to JR Jayewardene and forward to Mahinda Rajapaksa, because neoliberal globalization arose only after the collapse of the socialist system and with the moment of unipolar hegemony. Until then imperialism needed the nation-state in countries outside of its home base, in order to counter the global challenge.

In Sri Lanka there have been only two leaders who have practised neoliberalism. One was Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga, who foreignized the tea plantations whereas Premadasa, not being a neoliberal (he stood, in his words for a “carefully regulated market economy”), had only permitted local private sector firms to be granted five-year management contracts. The other, more conspicuous neoliberal was Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, by which I mean Wickremesinghe during his two stints as Prime Minister (ably supported in this regard by Mangala Samaraweera).

In the discussion on neoliberalism, it is unconscionably naïve to ignore the fact that Wickremesinghe deviated from the policy of the UNP and affiliated that party with the International Democratic Union, of which he became a Vice President. The IDU by its own description is the world body of parties of the Right, the Center-Right and the Christian Democrats, and was co-founded by the US Republicans and UK Conservatives.

The Rajapaksas are no socialists but they do not have to be. Their economic model, just as that of President Sirisena and the SLFP, is state-led. As one of the world’s most outstanding Marxist minds (who passed away this year) Samir Amin, said in his last writings, the most successful and perhaps only viable alternative to the neoliberal model today is that of China—a model of sovereignist State capitalism. And the only alternative to neoliberal globalization today is that of a multipolar globalization centered on Eurasian interconnectedness as proposed and projected by China and Russia.

It is this thinking that led Lenin to write a century ago, of an “Advanced Asia and Backward Europe”. His view was that in Europe even the Labor parties had become enmeshed in imperialism but in Asia, even the rising bourgeoisie was opposed to imperialism. This thinking led Stalin in his typical manner to conclude that objectively speaking “The Emir of Afghanistan is more progressive than the British Labor Party”.

It is only an infantile Left that assumes that neoliberalism can be defeated solely by a socialist alternative or by the Left allied with liberals or standing alone, in and of itself.

In his last published writing (‘Better Fewer, But Better’) in March 1923, Lenin was pronouncing on something far greater, more important and basic than ‘neoliberalism’ when he concluded that: “In the last analysis, the outcome of the struggle will be determined by the fact that Russia, India, China, etc., account for the overwhelming majority of the population of the globe…To ensure our existence until the next military conflict between the counter-revolutionary imperialist West and the revolutionary and nationalist East, between the most civilized countries of the world and the Orientally backward countries which, however, compromise the majority, this majority must become civilized…”


From the viewpoint of political purity or ideological puritanism, one may shudder at the nativist, even homophobically inflected streak in the discourse of the Sirisena-Rajapaksa forces, but for any tough-minded anti-imperialist this is less than relevant:

“Among these there were masses imbued with the crudest prejudices, with the vaguest and most fantastic aims of struggle…But objectively, the mass movement was breaking the back of tsarism…Inevitably, sections of the petty bourgeoisie and of the backward workers will participate in it—without such participation, mass struggle is impossible…—and just as inevitably will they bring into the movement their prejudices, their reactionary fantasies, their weaknesses and errors. But objectively they will attack capital…”


As with ‘capital’ so too, and to a greater degree with neoliberalism and neoliberal globalization. And as with Europe, so too and to a greater degree in the global South, especially Asia. What matters is objectively those who will attack it, whatever their subjective ideologies and discourses and however ‘politically incorrect’ they may be.

Fidel Castro for his part had the definitive word on neoliberalism. Margot Pepper whose book on Cuba was shortlisted for the 2006 American Book Award, quotes Fidel’s last speech at the Sao Paulo forum which he and Lula jointly founded after the USSR fell. Writing that “It [neoliberalism] is a policy Fidel warned against in the last speech I heard him pronounce live at this Forum”, she reproduces his authoritative conclusion as follows:

“Nobody can claim that objective or subjective conditions are favorable at this time for building socialism. I believe that at the present time there are other priorities… The most important battle in Latin America today is, in my opinion, to defeat neoliberalism, because if we don’t—we will disappear as independent states and will become more of a colony than the “Third World” countries ever were.”


Of the two camps in Sri Lankan politics today, the UNF led by Ranil Wickremesinghe and opposed by the convergence of President Sirisena and Prime Minister Rajapaksa, which comprises, subjectively and objectively, the agency of neoliberalism and neoliberal globalization. And which camp is objectively closer to that of the state-led Chinese model of a viable alternative to neoliberalism and neoliberal globalism, and the Russian-Chinese-Eurasian perspective of an alternative globalization?

On whose watch, ex-PM Ranil’s or President Sirisena’s and PM Rajapaksa’s is Sri Lanka more likely to (in Fidel Castro’s words) “disappear as an independent state… and become more of a colony than the ‘Third World’ countries ever were”? On whose watch is Sri Lanka less likely to “disappear as an independent state…and become more of a colony than the ‘Third World’ countries ever were”?Because that, for Fidel was the “priority” and “the most important battle today”, as it should be for us. It most certainly is for me.

To return to the concrete Sri Lankan situation, how does all this work out here and now, in the current context of crisis and transition? How does the general and the global apply and manifest itself locally?

The crisis has deep national, social and psychological roots. Our island contains two consciousnesses or two types of consciousness, two competing states of mind. Contrary to myth, the periphery of our island has the longest uninterrupted colonial history in the world; 450 years, from 1505 to 1948. This has resulted in a residue, sedimentation in the consciousness. There are elites, classes, strata, who have a dependent, colonial, pro-imperialist, puppet, parasitic existence and mentality. Not all the classes that live in the island’s urban periphery have such a consciousness, but there are handfuls that do, together with their supportive petty bourgeois and lumpen strata. In the political lexicon these are known as comprador or intermediary classes, elites; intermediaries between imperialism and the nation.

The UNP’s current leadership and its supporting civil society represent this comprador consciousness. This has not always been the case with the UNP, and one of the island’s least comprador and most patriotic leaders, Premadasa, was also the leader of the UNP—but he was an exception, not the norm, just as Chandrika Kumaratunga was an exception to the collective consciousness of the nationalist SLFP; not the norm. President Sirisena seemed to be a successor to her but he was not and has now returned to the SLFP’s nationalist norm.

The crisis then stems at least in part from the contradiction between a UNP leadership which is neoliberal globalist even by the UNP’s standards, and a Head of State and government who is a moderate nationalist and populist in his consciousness. This should come as absolutely no surprise because it was precisely his nationalist-populist profile that made those who reached out to him as candidate in 2005, do so—because it was only such a profile that could cut into the SLFP vote, splitting it between a Rajapaksa vote and a moderate SLFP one. This was the same strategy that was adopted when General Sarath Fonseka was made the candidate. The point was to break the Sinhala Buddhist vote by means of a dissident or defector, because the UNP leadership, unchanged and entrenched as it was, could not do so on its own. The present contradiction between the President and the current UNP leader is but a mild version that would have manifested itself had Gen Fonseka won the presidential race. The inevitability of this contradiction is proved by the sacking of the same Wickremesinghe in 2003 and his defeat at a snap election in 2004, called by the cosmopolitan liberal SLFP leader, President Kumaratunga.

It is an untruth that President Sirisena owes Wickremesinghe more than Wickremesinghe owes him. If not for Mr. Sirisena, President Rajapaksa would not have been defeated by Ranil (which is why Gen Fonseka was made candidate in 2010). If not for the defeat of President Rajapaksa, Wickremesinghe would not have made it to the Prime Ministership. If not for President Sirisena’s intervention in August 2015, Wickremesinghe would not have been PM by means of an election. Had President Sirisena appointed a Special Presidential Commission into the Central Bank bond scam instead of merely a Presidential Commission, and had he intervened to ensure that Dappula de Livera was not prevented from cross-examining the then PM, Wickremesinghe would not even be in legally dubious occupation of Temple Trees.

What we are witnessing is not a struggle between democracy and dictatorship. It is a struggle between two models of democracy: Anglo-American liberal democracy and French, Latin American and Russian Presidentialist democracy, with directly elected executive Presidencies being the hub and center of gravity of the system. Russia calls its variant, “sovereign democracy” in which “vertical power” is stronger than in Anglo-American liberal democracy with their emphasis on the separation of powers.

This crisis is an existential crisis for the nation. Political systems of nations change and change back, but the nation and its State must go on. A small island nation cannot survive if its ports, airports, roadways and oil tank farms are given over to foreigners and its provinces given quasi-federal powers. We simply do not have the geopolitical space for that. We have no safe rear. No defence in depth. We are a mere 18 miles from a hostile Tamil Nadu. This is the permanent situation exemplified by the story of the insomniac Prince Dutugemunu who felt acutely hemmed in. Our military’s morale was being targeted by the 2015 and 2017 Geneva resolutions. Our people would have been reduced to penury by the neoliberal budgetary policies and the cutbacks, the economic shock therapy that was being administered. Our people would have been reduced to semi-serf status.

The crisis takes place in a global setting and the global contestation has local echoes. I don’t like people telling me what to do, or rather, trying to tell me what to do, especially when it is hypocrites responsible for millions of needless deaths who do the telling. The world is dividing into powers that stand for a multipolar world order in which sovereignty is respected and every nation gets to be the best and most that they can in keeping with their choices and distinctive ways, and those others who wish to preserve what they call a liberal world order in which they are the undisputed leader. It is the latter and their allies who try to tell us what to do with and in our own country while they are in a mess in their own (punctuated by mass shootings), and devastate other countries all the while. The first category, those who stand for a multipolar world, do not interfere in our domestic affairs; do not patronize us and are respectful of Sri Lanka’s sovereignty and sense of self-worth. It is our good fortune that foremost among such countries are the world’s most populous and the world’s largest, China and Russia; one with a powerful economy, the other with a powerful military and outstanding leadership. It is our good fortune that these two countries have an ever-closer partnership. It is our good fortune that Russia and China taken together constitute a large Eurasian space.

There is a global battle being fought out with the hegemonic power, which is in slow parabolic historical decline like all empires eventually are, tries to contain both Russia and China at the same time—thereby making a huge grand strategic mistake and becoming hugely overstretched. This Eurasian option is on the rise, though the declining empire hopes to use its military and economic power, diminishing as these are in a relative sense, in a desperate gamble to weaken Russia and China. The declining hegemonic power had constructed an Asian sub-system and seeks to keep us locked inside it, so we cannot connect up with our true friend, whose economic power we need, namely China. These hegemons try to keep in place or restore as our rulers, those local stooges who will maintain our island as a base for their effort against China. Thus, they interfere in our affairs and even try tactics worked out in places as widely disparate in geography and time as Guatemala and Iran in the 1950s, to Chile in the 1970s and the so-called Color Revolutions in the 1990s and the disastrous Arab Spring of the last decade. This includes the Ukrainian model of forcing an elected President out of power.

The bottom line is this: who owns our island? Who will inherit it? Those who care enough for it to fight of its independence, sovereignty, unity, territorial integrity and autonomous way of being, including a way of being in the world? Or the puppets and stooges, the compradors and lackeys of a declining Empire?

History shows us that a nation will fight for its existence and its autonomous way of being. Sri Lanka did not cave in despite thirty years of virulent terrorism at the hands of a truly globalized and formidable, suicide-bombing terrorist army. It knew who and in which direction to turn to in order to survive and prevail. And it did so, all the while keeping its democratic system intact. This time too, in the face of the existential crisis and threat, Sri Lanka will turn among its many choices, to a democratic option that can do the job, breaking through resistance of the puppet elites of the long-colonized coastal cities. What we are seeing now, the realignment of President Sirisena and Prime Minister Rajapaksa, is as good as it gets when it comes to a soft landing; a soft transition from the neoliberal model. If, however, it is forced by neoliberal local resistance and external interventionist pressure, Sri Lanka will, in the existential interests of national survival and recovery, adopt the tougher-minded Eurasian political and more importantly, economic model of a populist-nationalist democracy which does not conform to the norms of liberalism still less neo-liberalism. If the external environment is even more challenging then Sri Lanka may need to shift to a less penetrable and vulnerable, strong centralized state which had yielded magnificent results in Singapore and China. We shall see what the Sri Lankan electorate chooses, no later than this time next year.