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The closest Sri Lanka came to national security state

Oct 23, 2010 4:06:27 PM- transcurrents.com

by Dr. Dayan Jayatilleka

Let us not be evasive. There is a model of the National Security State that is not that which is described by the Washington Post earlier this year in its stunning expose Top Secret America (or by more radical critics of the US). It is the earlier and far nastier Latin American model, from which the term originated. That National Security State was the norm in Latin America from the mid 1960s through to the mid 1980s. It emerged in Brazil after the 1964 coup and saw the conversion of much of Latin America into ‘torture states’.

As the one who actually introduced the term ‘National Security State’ from the Latin American discourse into the Sri Lankan through the pages of the Lanka Guardian, I must draw attention to the fact that in Latin America, that was the designation given to a state form which was the result of a military coup d’état or a military-civilian junta and the violent suppression or suspension of representative party politics, the multiparty system and the electoral process. That has most certainly not taken place in Sri Lanka and therefore the model certainly does not apply to Sri Lanka today.

I’d argue (as I did then) that the closest the country came to a National Security state was in the post Referendum Jayewardene years when Lalith Athulathmudali was Minister of National Security, with an earlier ‘close encounter’ in the 1970s. I recall the 1972 essay by the iconic Andre Gunder Frank in the Monthly Review (New York), edited at the time by the legendary Paul Sweezy, in which he designates Sri Lanka of that time as "semi-fascist" (and mentions discussing the subject with Dr SA Wickremesinghe, the founder of the country’s socialist movement, leader of the Communist party and its dissident faction, at Prof Visakha Kumari Jayewardene’s residence).

Be it the hypertrophy of security apparatuses and ubiquity of a garrison state mentality or any other negative tendency, no remedial reply lies in the denigration of patriotism, the de-prioritisation of the mainstream and the adoption instead, of the marginal. Patriotism is not a ‘Sinhala middle class’ phenomenon, either in composition or character. This is nothing but a devaluation of the socially and electorally all-important peasantry/ rural voter in the Sinhala heartland. The overwhelming majority of youngsters who gave their lives and limbs in the struggle against secessionist terrorism were from Sinhala peasant backgrounds.

Patriotism or nationalism cannot be reduced to a single class or stratum. Some social phenomena are beyond such compartmentalisation and caricature. Patriotism is a deep and broad cross-class or trans-class phenomenon. Only the naively unthinking could assume that patriotism dissipates in the face of economic crisis. In many places it just becomes more virulent, even violent, if there is no moderate or progressive patriotic/nationalist party that the masses can identify with. No serious political party in a democracy can base itself primarily upon, or allow itself to be identified overly with marginal causes and marginalised segments which can alienate it from the Sinhala heartland. The mobilisation of the marginal is the primary task of social movements in the non-party political space.

Unless one wishes to remain permanently in a Samasamajist or at best, Kinnock-Kerry cul de sac, the task of an enlightened political project is not to turn its back on the patriotic mainstream but to identify with it and re-work it from within, interpreting it in a broad inclusive pluralist spirit, linking it up (‘articulating’ it) with a modernist and progressive transformational programme.

It is sad but perhaps unsurprising to note the increasingly raucous anti-China prejudices of the discourse of some segments of oppositional opinion, at a time that no progressive leader in the Third World would do so. Most are hurrying to avail themselves of China as a countervailing factor and encouraging its rise as a move towards a multi-polar world. Last week, the UNP’s ‘ rump faction’ represented by leader Wickremesinghe and spokesperson Samaraweera complained of China’s ‘clout’ in Colombo, while some commentators have criticised the idea of benefiting from the shift of industries from China’s coastal zones which are now high wage areas.

The UNP’s slogan comes as no surprise, as it is standard fare for the UNP Right: Sir John Kotelawela’s anti-China stance at Bandung in 1955 isolated him from the Afro-Asian ethos, earned him the nickname ‘Bandung Booruwa’, and contributed to the UNP’s defeat in ’56, while the UNP of the ’60s yelled hysterically about Chinese spies posing as tourists, taking photographs of Trincomalee harbour (which didn’t help the party avoid a crash to electoral defeat).

As for positioning Sri Lanka to benefit from a shift of certain industries from China’s prosperous coastal periphery, I prefer to heed the advice of Tharman Shanmugaratnam, Singapore’s 53 year old Finance Minister who outclassed Larry Summers and Dominic Strauss Kahn on Fareed Zakaria’s show. Several weeks ago, he advocated just that as the coming developmental opportunity for Asia.

Not that this should be at the expense of another great opportunity for economic growth, namely the hub and spokes regional economic and trade model utilising India’s take-off (as recommended by Pakistan’s former Finance Minister and former Vice-President of the World Bank, Javed Berki). Luckily Sri Lanka is positioned to do both; to be at the interface of India’s and China’s parallel and simultaneous economic miracles. Let us hope we don’t miss out, yet again.