“dissenting dialogues” on Egypt, Sri Lanka and other debates
The editorial and the list of articles in the dissenting dialogues Issue No 2, February 2011 are posted below. The entire issue can be downloaded as a pdf file from the Sri Lanka Democracy Forum website.
As the second issue of dissenting dialogues goes to press, we join in worldwide celebrations of the ongoing democratic revolution in Egypt, itself sparked off by an uprising in Tunisia. The Egyptian uprising, which has tremendous regional and possibly global consequences, came against a background of simmering unrest directed at a dictator who presided over a brutal, authoritarian regime. This regime was distinguished by its incarceration and torture not only of its own dissidents but of prisoners “renditioned” to it by the CIA, the denial of basic democratic rights on the pretext of fighting Islamism, and rising youth unemployment and inflation.
Although the timing and form of Egypt’s popular revolt could not have been predicted, an examination of the recent history of Egypt contextualises the forces at work. For a start, we cannot avoid looking at the recent history of neoliberalism in Egypt, its relationship to the authoritarianism of President Hosni Mubarak’s government, and the regime’s relationship to imperialism. The post-war history of Egypt also charts and indeed defines the historical trajectory of Third World sovereignty. Egypt’s revolt has to be understood in the context of the progressive socialist, anti-colonial struggle for national self-determination of the Bandung era from the 1950s until the liberalisation of the economy in the 1970s, the International Monetary Fund’s “restructuring” in the early 1990s, and the recent capitulation to the accumulation strategy of global finance capital.
How did the anti-colonialism of the Bandung era succumb to imperial interests, and how have external actors strengthened current ruling regimes? What was the relationship of these successive regimes to the military, and how did that impact on state-society relations? What was the role of neoliberal policies over the last three decades in consolidating the power and fortunes of the ruling regime? How have those policies, in turn, affected the rural and urban poor and the working classes? What has been the response to such exploitation and dispossession in the form of struggles? Why did those past struggles fail to make major gains, and how have those who are economically disenfranchised shaped the present revolution in Egypt? These questions are important not only for Egypt and the Arab world, but for many other parts of the Third World, as we reflect on arguably one of the most important moments thus far in the twenty-first century.
One of the most remarkable aspects of the revolution has been its broad class and multi-denominational composition. The diverse democratic base of the movement that came together at Tahrir Square was inspiring because of the alliances that were born out of struggle, between men and women workers and students and, in particular, Coptic Christians and Muslim Brotherhood activists raising their clasped hands and chanting “Muslims, Christians, we are one” together with secular activists. Furthermore, we must recognise the fact that “democracy” for many of the Egyptian trade union, student and social movement activists does not mean liberal democracy alone, but encompasses economic redistribution and social justice.
In Sri Lanka right now, some regions are yet to recover from two waves of severe floods affecting over a million people. The rehabilitation of those affected by floods will augment the efforts and challenges of rehabilitating those affected by the war and the tsunami – some populations, particularly in the East, have been affected by all three. The repression, attacks on the press, and the climate of fear characteristic of the war years are continuing. Almost two years after the war, the state of emergency continues and the Prevention of Terrorism Act has not been repealed, while the powers of the executive presidency have been consolidated further by the controversial 18th Amendment. Despite all these aggravated problems facing the whole political system, the political actors are in full swing for the upcoming local government elections. Why and what for?
There has been much emphasis on the Rajapaksa regime’s authoritarianism and populism rising out of the war victory, but little analysis of the continuities and shifts in the realm of economic policies. Such an analysis can draw upon Sri Lanka’s rich tradition of political economic analysis addressing questions around intermediate classes and regimes, the impact of the open economic reforms and emergence of free trade zones, the youth uprisings and their relationship to youth unemployment, and the character of state-led development and social welfare.
In light of the global economic crisis of 2008, perhaps the deepest crisis since the great depression of the 1930s, new questions have emerged about the legitimacy of neoliberalism as an ideology and the changing character of its practice. We need to understand the relationship between global political economic forces and neoliberal ideology in the specific forms neoliberalism assumes in each national context. We need to examine its dependence on authoritarian state apparatuses in certain contexts, the social formations it spawns, the redistribution of wealth, dispossession of subaltern classes, and rising inequalities it typically entails.
For the moment, Sri Lanka’s capital markets have been flooded by capital flowing from the West, while China and India are making massive investments in infrastructure. Sri Lanka’s post-war moment, characterised as one of “stability and security,” has added to the boost in euphoria, with a real estate boom centred on tourism.
At the same time, debates surrounding the future of the “national question” as a political problem related to devolution have intentionally been displaced by the rhetoric of development, although it should be abundantly clear that the character of development depends critically on the manner in which this political problem is handled. Furthermore, uneven development and the sharpening of the rural-urban divide, as well as the divide between the Western Province and the rest of the country, are symptoms of the centralisation of power, which has paralleled increasing income inequalities over the last many decades. Ideologically, the Sinhala-Buddhist nationalist manoeuvre of the Rajapaksa regime is one that can further entrench authoritarianism and facilitate neoliberal development, while undermining the democratisation of state and society.
In this global and national context, dissenting dialogues seeks to address some important debates on democratisation and social justice in Sri Lanka. In this issue, we examine the Rajapaksa regime’s economic outlook, including: the continuities and shifts from over three decades of open economic policies, the manner in which Sri Lanka managed the impact of the war in relation to its liberalised economy, the impact of economic changes on women’s labour as the major earner that sustained the balance of payments, and the tremendous costs to workers’ rights. We also attempt to bring out the voices of women workers and student activists to highlight their importance for future struggles and changes. Some of the articles engage with the contours of Sinhala-Buddhist nationalist ideology and its relationship to the Rajapaksa regime, and the contestations around such ideological questions in relation to political-economic issues. Other articles look into responses within the Muslim and Tamil communities to the post-war predicament. There are articles that look at recent literary conferences, the problematic boycott calls from external actors, and the debates they have engendered. Finally, there is engagement with the history of constitution writing to understand the challenges of power-sharing and the problems of centralisation of state power.
Reflections on class in post-war Sri Lanka
Women workers and the struggle for labour rights
A portrait of student politics in Peradeniya
Interview with dissenting dialogues
Lurching towards extremism
Politics and ideology in the Sinhala press: a site of power and struggle
My life and Jaffna
A review of the International Tamil Writers’ Conference – 2011
Boycott calls and international engagement
Sivamohan Sumathy and Mahendran Thiruvarangan
1972 in retrospect