Q With the conclusion of the election in the United States, there is a perception that nationalism is triumphing over internationalism. What are your views?
First of all, internationalism has never triumphed. It is wrong to pit one concept against another in this instance. Nationalism has been a strong political and ideological force for the last two centuries, particularly after the French revolution. It has a very high attraction among the masses. It is a concept with strong political appeal. Non nationalist ideologies also prevailed. Internationalism was there. It emerged with a political connotation with the communist movement. It arose with the initiatives of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels. In the aftermath of World War 1, internationalism could not confront nationalism.
What we call supranational bodies came in. The United Nations and League of nations were collectives of independent nations. Powerful nations were dominating others as seen. The UN has dominant forces, some even recognized formally. The countries with veto powers in the Security Council are dominant. Even in the informal sense, powerful countries dominate the affairs of these international bodies using their economic and military might. The economic power is associated with the ability to control the world’s resources.
There are internationalist movements acting beyond national governments. Some of them are the Human Rights Movement and environmental movements. Let alone, globalization took place in the international labour market and capital markets. Despite all that, nationalism has sustained its strong political and emotional appeal. Communism, despite being an internationalist concept, could gain a foothold with the injection of nationalism into it. Nationalism has always been a strong force.
Q How do you analyze it in the context of Trump’s victory?
Along with Trump’s victory, we can see Brexit. These two can be compared. After World War I, there was economic integration in Europe. The European Union was more of a German-French affair. Other countries joined it. Britain only had a marginal relationship. It was less integrated with the European Union.
Be that as it may, Britain developed itself as a colonial power. They have links with countries outside Europe. Brexit is a decisive move. It can be as a result of nationalism in Europe. It has been there right throughout. But, Brexit is a manifestation. We can juxtapose it with Trump’s victory. Nationalism has its appeal. In India, the victory of Narendra Modi is one. In Germany, we find nationalism as it is opposed to migrants. There are reasons for nationalism for it is due to the changes in the global economy.
In the United States, there are as many as 11 million migrant workers. It became a campaign slogan. Nationalism was a response to it.
Q How will Sri Lanka’s nationalism evolve or develop in this context?
In Sri Lanka, nationalism was strong in the 1950s. At that time, the non-nationalist movements such as the leftist movement were relatively strong. The two main parties-the United National Party (UNP) and the Sri Lankan Freedom Party (SLFP) - had a distant relationship with ultra-national forces at that time. After 1983, we saw a special situation due to the advent of war. Then, again, nationalism became strong. Now, in the post war situation Tamil nationalism is getting strong in the North as well. In response, the Sinhala-Buddhist nationalism is rising here.
The middle class within the Sinhala-Buddhist community also has a bias in this regard. We can see the opposition to the Economic and Technology Cooperation Agreement (ETCA). I also have some criticism towards it. That is middle-class nationalism. Among the upper middle-class, there is a nationalist trend. Within the business community, we find anti-Muslim sentiments. The Sinhala-Buddhist middle-class was not actively engaged in business as such traditionally. The Muslims and non-Sinhala Buddhists dominated it traditionally. Now, the Sinhalese are entering into the business field. It has created a competition. That competition is mediated by nationalism. It comes out in the open as a Sinhala-Muslim problem.
The Sinhala nationalist movements are elated about Trump’s victory. They see it as a stimulant here. Yet, that is not the sole reason. Nationalism is gaining ground here.
Q You are an academic who strived for the installation of the current government that pledged to implement good governance principles. How detrimental is this trend for the country?
Good governance is something different I have to explain to you. I do not use it in that sense. If I leave it aside, there will be a lot for us to talk about in this case. Nationalism is actually a manifestation of a crisis either here or internationally. Otherwise, it is not a solution to the problem. For example, if we fall ill, it can be seen through symptoms. We cannot see symptoms as the cure for the disease. Nationalism is not the cure for the disease. It is a manifestation of the disease. When there is a skin disease, it will be irritating. Then, we scratch it for comfort. The more we scratch it, the more we aggravate the disease. Nationalism is also like that. Nationalism is a kind of relief. It has emotional appeal. The non-nationalist ideologies do not have such emotional appeal. When we talk about good governance, democracy or human rights, it is not awe-inspiring for us. But, when we talk about moves for the partition of the country, it becomes emotionally appealing. As such, mass mobilization is easy within the concept of nationalism.
Yet, we have to see other aspects. When Sinhala-Buddhist nationalist sentiments get stronger, Tamil and Muslim nationalism rise simultaneously. It gives birth to such movements within these communities. It can give rise to the sentiments of other religious groups including Catholics. It creates internal divisions. At the future elections, the popularity of political parties with national appeals will wane. As for the political party formed by former President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s group, its ideological backing comes from ultra-nationalist forces such as Nalin de Silva, Wimal Weerawansa and Gunadasa Amarasekara. That party has the dominant political appeal in the South today.
No other party can mobilize people voluntarily in this manner. People do not support in that manner in political rallies of the UNP or the SLFP. Mr. Rajapaksa can bring bigger crowds. There is voluntary participation of people. President Maithripala Sirisena, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe or former President Chandrika Kumaratunga cannot mobilize people in that manner.
At the next election, we will see an ethnically divided political map. It will be a big crisis. In the United States too, it is there. There are 11 million illegal migrants there. They cannot be sent back. If it is done, the economy will collapse. This is a paradoxical situation. These illegal migrants provide cheap labour. White supremacy is getting stronger, and at the same time other groups also get organized. It foretells a crisis.
Q What is your role as a university academic in the face of the emergence of such a situation?
We cannot avoid this crisis. We have to stand up to it. We should talk about it. A public discourse is needed for it. This is a problem that awaits it. I cannot see any force that can prevent this from happening. It will reach the climax.
Only then will the alternative approaches emerge. I believe the new party, being formed by the Rajapaksa group, will become the main force. It has the largest attraction. Yet, it cannot secure the total power because it can appeal only to a section of the Sinhala Buddhist constituency. Then, it will lead to a crisis as happened in France during the 1950s.
No party will be able to govern single handedly. The new party will be unable to form a coalition government because its ideological backing emanates from ultra-nationalist forces. These forces will prevent an alliance with others. Nobody can counter it.
Q How challenging will it be to find a solution to the Tamil national question?
We cannot find a political solution at all now. We cannot even talk about it. We can just discuss it to raise funds internationally. A Federal constitution is totally unrealistic now. A solution that is acceptable to Tamils can be worked out only with the consent of the South. Anything acceptable to the North is not acceptable to the South. These two cannot be reconciled. Some possibility existed in the past because the two main parties were not controlled by the ultra-nationalist persons. Now it is different. The extremist groups are calling the shots today in the Rajapaksa group of the SLFP. Anything unacceptable to this group cannot be implemented in the South.
It is structurally impossible to give a solution that meets the aspirations of the Tamil people. It is useless to talk about it. We do not know what will happen in the future.
Q In the installation of the current government, there were a lot of hopes among groups such as yours. What do you feel about the current predicament then?
It is the nature of politics. What happened on January 8 was a big event. In such an instance people get together and put forth their views. After that, the euphoria dies down. Then, elements with different agendas dominate. There is a contrast between the groups that rallied for the Big Event and these elements. We voice against them. But, the government moves on. This is how politics works.
Q What is the role of the Federation of University Teachers’ Association (FUTA)?
It has no specially-assigned role. It is a trade union. It talks about education and other rights. We too can talk about it.
Q How responsible is the government for the present situation?
There are ways in which the governments work. They work according to the interests of those close to them. They work for votes. We cannot do anything about it. We have to build public cognition about it. That is the way to do it.