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• by Asanga Welikala - on 02/12/2015

“To give freedom is still more easy. It is
not necessary to guide; it only requires to let go the rein. But to form a free
government; that is, to temper together these opposite elements of liberty
and restraint in one work, requires much thought, deep reflection, a
sagacious, powerful, and combining mind.”

Edmund Burke (1790) Reflections on the Revolution in France

With just over a month after the installation of the new government and its
commencement of the 100-day reform process, the situation can best be
described as mixed. For the time being at least, we have seen off both
separatist and state terrorists from the public square, we have a
government whose policy is informed by common sense and moderation,
and there is a real prospect of a whole raft of constitutional reforms that will
re-lay the democratic foundations of our republic more evenly.

We can be reasonably happy about all this, although we can do better. The
process itself is extremely opaque, the programme’s coherence and
priorities are perplexing, and as a result, there is little or no social
constitutional conversation in the way the change of 8th January seemed to
promise. In other words, this is increasingly looking like a more conventional
Sri Lankan change of government, rather than a democratic regime change.
It is a change of personnel and not of the system. We have voted out a
government whose authoritarian and corrupt excesses had become
intolerable, and replaced it with the more familiar style of government that
both the SLFP and UNP produced prior to the Rajapaksa aberration.
I am not sure if this is good enough, whether it meets the expectations of
the majority that voted for change on 8th January, and whether it uses the
fullest potential of the historic opportunity that we created on that day, to
ensure that political criminality, authoritarianism, and industrial-scale
corruption are a thing of the past in Sri Lanka. Most ominously, I am not at
all sure whether reformists have learnt all the critical political lessons they
ought to have from the crash-and-burn of reformism in the decade between
1994 and 2004. The failure of the peace process especially carried two
lessons: first, that the deep constitutional reforms that are needed to
address our ethnic, religious, and national pluralism are better undertaken
incrementally; and second, that government needed to communicate much
better with the people and especially the Sinhala majority, to explain,
debate, and defend reforms. It appears to me that the first lesson has been
learnt fairly well, at least in terms of prioritising democracy reforms over
the devolution reforms. Tamil nationalists will not be happy with this, but it
is a choice of method that can be solidly defended on both practical and
normative grounds.
So far, however, the government’s performance in respect of the second
matter is a clear fail. The government’s attitude to the dissemination of
information and public discussion of its proposals is antediluvian, and
borders on disrespect for the electorate that debated these issues and
voted for them in the last election. The government probably gets away
with it because the reforms currently being prepared were – at least in
broad principle – at the centre of the common opposition’s campaign, the
President has a clear mandate for them, and there is widespread support
for them. But this goodwill and credulity is unlikely to last, and indeed in a
democracy, no government should be allowed to get away with such a lack
of scrutiny. Especially when the time comes to deliver on minority
aspirations – and President Sirisena has a strong moral obligation to do so
given their solid support for him – when the detail and the consensus are
going to be much more difficult to negotiate, the government’s primitive
methods are unlikely to bring success. Reformism, then, will go the way
reformism usually goes in Sri Lanka – a flash in the pan and then down the

In this rather precarious context, there are three fundamental threats to
substantive reformism as well as the reform process that must be clearly
understood. I will call them the ‘politics of harm’, the ‘politics of hurt’ and
the ‘politics of the haughty’. If their implications are not understood, it is
inevitable that the reform process will fail. This will be a tragedy, albeit one
that is a recurring feature in Sri Lankan history when one or the other or a
combination of these factors have ensured the failure of reform. We would
never have wasted our resources on a civil war, or caused unspeakable
enmity amongst us, had we heeded the dangers represented by these
factors and undertaken reforms at critical junctures in the past. We cannot
afford to repeat these mistakes again, unless we want the Rajapaksas, the
Gnanasaras, and the Prabhakarans to return to run and ruin our lives yet
The politics of hate reflect the chauvinist strain of Sinhala-Buddhist
nationalism that has wrecked our democratic promise time and time again
after independence. This ‘majority with a minority complex’ worldview
draws from an inexhaustible supply of insecurity and sees even the most
trivial concession to the minorities as an existential threat to its own
wellbeing. Anyone who is remotely critical of its small-minded intolerance is
seen as a traitor and a separatist. It is an unedifying dimension to the
Sinhala-Buddhist psyche, which when politicised trumps every other
laudable instinct of Sinhala culture and Buddhist philosophy. In the hands of
purveyors like the Rajapaksas and their accomplices like the BBS, this
dominant nationalism makes politics a parody of a kasippu-fuelled brawl of
village thugs. This powerful anti-reform force in Sri Lankan politics is down
but not out, and if reformists underestimate its power as they have done in
the past, reform has no chance. This is why incremental rather than radical
reform is crucial, and an unceasing commitment to engaging the SinhalaBuddhist constituency without capitulating to its chauvinism even more so.
That engagement must seek to build and strengthen the reflective, tolerant,
pluralistic, and ecumenical aspect of Sinhala-Buddhist culture and history,
and assuage without appeasing it, its siege mentality of encirclement and
cultural destruction. Sinhala-Buddhists may enjoy historical and numerical
primacy in the territorial space of the state, but the task of ensuring that
this does not mean the subjugation and ritual humiliation of Sri Lanka’s
minority peoples must commence from within the Sinhala-Buddhist
community itself.
The politics of hurt is reflected in the passive aggressive and self-piteous
dimension of Tamil nationalism, which seeks to salve the humiliation of the
battlefield defeat of 2009 by a sullen refusal to engage with the rest of Sri

Lanka and by seeking succour through international intervention. It has
appropriated the liberal critique of the ethnocratic Sri Lankan state in
assuming a self-righteous moral high ground, while practicing a studious
amnesia about its own excesses, exemplified in the acts and methods of the
LTTE. It is a peculiar mix of ethnonational emotionalism and liberal
internationalism, which sees political engagement with realities on the
ground as a sell-out of its collective interests. It is fundamentally
irresponsible with regard to the long-term interests of its own people within
the island, and it is enslaved to the intemperate rhetoric of the Marxian
discourses that informed Tamil nationalism’s era of radicalisation in the
1970s. It also predominantly articulates the wishes of a hypocritical section
of diaspora opinion that enjoys the security, the wealth, the mobility, and
the liberal democratic space of Western societies, including the naiveté of
Western political opinion, to nurse a suppurating desire for revenge. As an
illustration of this, it really is difficult to conjure up a more bizarre act of
myopia than the ‘Genocide Resolution’ passed by Northern Provincial
Council on 10th February. It could be dismissed as a silly piece of selfindulgence by a disgruntled bunch of councillors that is clearly out of the
control of its instinctively moderate Chief Minister, if its potential
consequences were not so serious. If it serves to undermine a moderate
government, to destabilise a fragile reforms process, and to encourage a
restoration of Southern hardliners to the control of the state, then this strain
of Tamil nationalism would not only have dissipated a political opportunity
that comes only once in a lifetime, but also have repudiated its claims to
our sympathy with the legitimate aspirations to autonomy and
accountability that Sri Lankan Tamils are otherwise entitled to as of right.
The politics of the haughty is what is usually practiced by reformists both
Sinhala and Tamil. Convinced of the moral and intellectual superiority of
their own convictions, they are impatient with the politics of populism and
nationalism, and in some cases, with politics per se. They are also,
however, paradoxically quite intellectually indolent, in that they are not
prepared to do the hard work in order to contextualise the universal values
of civility, reason, and the rule of law that they rightly prize, to the culture
within which they must operate. Historical and philosophical resources that
are available to rearticulate these values in more culturally resonant terms
are never used, and the result is that the ethnonationalists are ceded the
monopoly over cultural authenticity. In this way, whatever concessions they
make to the realities of Sri Lankan political culture are done with barely
concealed distaste and condescension, which patronises the large majority
of ordinary people. This has constituted the recipe for the frequent electoral
defeats that reformism has suffered time and again. Put another way, this is
why a Mahinda Rajapaksa is preferred over a Ranil Wickremesinghe, or that
the Sasitharans and the Sridharans find more resonance with their

constituencies than the Sampanthans and the Sumanthirans. This is a selfinflicted tragedy, and the dormant signs of a Rajapaksa revival in the South
as well as the sense of alienation that is reflected in the Genocide
Resolution, should be wakeup calls to those in charge of the current reform
process that if they do business as usual, they will be out of power sooner
rather than later.
Reform by definition is a risky enterprise that engenders concerns and even
fears in communities about their collective self-interests. For substantive
reform to be durable, reformists must ensure that the process is sensitive
and inclusive, so that understandable trepidations do not become
destructive fears. The Sinhalese must not be driven back into the barren
embrace of Rajapaksa-style chauvinism as the only way in which their place
under the sun can be protected, or indeed to obsolete ideas about the
state, nation, and sovereignty that are indefatigably promoted by those
who cannot think beyond the Third World of the 1970s. Likewise, Tamils
must not be allowed to feel that their desire for accountability and
autonomy is being cheaply bartered away for meaningless promises of
future reform in backroom deals. They must not feel that self-defeating, allor-nothing gambits are all that they have in order to register and placate
their sense of disempowerment and injustice. In all this, the nature of the
process is critical and the politics of the haughty is simply inadequate to
conceive and implement the kind of reform process that we need in order to
address the politics of hate and hurt.
If these three threats to reform are not fully perceived and acted upon by
those who are currently vested with the political power to reform the state,
then I am afraid the process is in mortal danger. While it is not too late, the
nature of the process must be rethought, and a serious attempt must be
made by the hitherto haughty to ensure that hate and hurt do not lead to
permanent harm. There is a Xhosa saying that I am told by President
Mandela’s former legal advisor that Mandela used to frequently invoke
during South Africa’s transitional process: “Don’t laugh at the crocodile until
you’ve crossed the river.” In the context of the dangers represented by the
politics of hate and the politics of hurt, that is sage advice.