The end of the war in May 2009, signalled a historic moment for Sri Lanka. The tragedy of war with tremendous devastation and suffering required considerable reflection about our past. Furthermore, the aftermath of war required collective thinking and action about our future. However, we as a people did little critical reflection about the past and even less thinking about our future. Rather, we succumbed to the narratives and prescriptions of powerful actors, whether it be from nationalist, technocratic or global stages. I address here, the political economic shift soon after the war, and consider the historic juncture at the current moment. How did national and international developments and forces shape Sri Lanka’s trajectory a decade ago, and what can we say about the ongoing crisis and our future?
Karl Marx, in one of his great works of political analysis, The 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, wrote the following profound sentences as he watched France consolidate under a repressive regime after the failed revolution of 1848: “Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past. The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living.”
Our history is no different, without a vision for our future, Sri Lanka has repeatedly fallen for dominant ideas from the past. And we often fail to consider the broader circumstances and powerful forces at work in determining our future.
Marxist thinkers, including Antonio Gramsci, have theorised such historic shifts or periods of change with the concept of conjuncture. A conjuncture emerges with the interaction of various social, economic and political forces, and produces a historical shift where a range of powerful national and international actors seek to manoeuvre and consolidate changes that last long periods of time. The economic trajectory changes for example towards or against liberalisation. Political structures are transformed for example towards authoritarian rule or greater democratisation. Even social relations, whether it is people’s assertions of their rights or interactions between communities are influenced. And certain regimes and classes gain from and establish their hegemony during such significant changes to the political economy of countries.
I argue that the end of the war in May 2009 was such a moment. Nationally a protracted civil war had come to an end, when the economy was facing many difficulties including a balance of payment crisis. Internationally, the fall out of the global economic crisis of 2008 had raised many questions about the neoliberal economic policies that had been pursued during the previous three decades. The manoeuvre of the Rajapaksa regime after the war, riding on the waves of national majoritarian euphoria and international neoliberal reconsolidation, was to address all of Sri Lanka’s problems through a singular solution of authoritarian economic development.
Sri Lanka thus repeated the failures of the previous three decades of neoliberal policies around the world. Financial flows were encouraged and sunk into infrastructure and urban development, tourism they claimed would boom and provide the returns of the investment in hotels and malls not to mention medical tourism and international private educational institutions, an international financial centre was to be build, and even rural livelihoods were to be developed by expanding the financial sector including for microfinance led self-employment schemes. Sadly, after regime change in 2015 these neoliberal policies did not change, rather some of them were accelerated.
Neither the global capitalist class nor the national leadership in Sri Lanka, considered the tremendous problems caused by finance capital with the global economic crisis of 2008. Rather, as Western governments bailed out the financiers and banks, countries like Sri Lanka grovellingly invited them. We failed to consider an alternative political economic trajectory to strengthen the economic lives of our people through investment in our rural economy and self-sufficiency where possible.
As income inequalities rose and the economic problems mounted, new fissures within society were actively or otherwise created along ethnic and religious lines. The state’s response to the Tamil and Muslim minorities was one of militarised repression in the Tamil areas and a blind eye if not subtle support to goon squads attacking Muslims, including their business enterprises.
Crisis and decade ahead
Crises come in different forms and under different circumstances. Even as we mark a decade after the war, the Easter attacks few weeks ago signal perhaps another conjuncture. Tourism is now affected for the next few years, and even a semblance of returns from the large scale investment in urban real estate and infrastructure are unlikely to be seen in the years ahead. Fear combined with the anti-Muslim sentiments have brought back like a nightmare the “war on terror” and “prevention of terrorism” as the solution to all our problems. As a trade war escalates between the USA and China, we are again asked to position our country as pawn in geopolitical game. The impulsive solution is to rely on a strongman leader—an authoritarian regime to control the deteriorating economy and the political disorder.
At this moment of crisis and great flux in the country, the historic circumstances and the positions of our leaders provide little hope. And we often forget how disastrous authoritarian regimes have been in the past. How do we then conjure the vision and energies for an alternative future?
We cannot merely draw on the experience and ideas from the past to move forward. The LTTE is very different from the radical Islamists responsible for the Easter attacks. Tamil politics and aspirations over the decades are very different from the concerns of the Muslim communities. Sinhala Buddhist nationalism is not monolithic and it is constantly morphing to suit the new conditions. Indeed, Sri Lanka in 2019 is in a very different position from 2009 and 1983, even if the historic challenges may be of similar proportions.
If the decade we have just passed has been gruelling for many, particularly the war-torn people, then the decade ahead is pregnant with dangers of repression, particularly for the Islamic communities. Internationally, we are bound to be shaped by the regime that emerges with elections in India, the US-China tensions and the turbulence in the global economy. In Sri Lanka, the cycle of decisive elections are nearing, which will decide who and how we will be ruled; will it be with an iron fist or with democracy.
In these troubling times, we must think, discuss and debate. We do not live as individuals nor in bubbles, rather our lives are shaped by so many social circles and institutions, whether it be our extended families, schools, universities, places of worship, trade unions, community centres etc. If we are resigned to the order of discipline, of law and order, and of security, we merely have to hand that responsibility to the state, the security forces and in time a powerful leader. But if we believe that only the people can address these problems, we must in all those institutions begin asking difficult questions about our collective future.