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11th Death Anniversary June 22nd ~ No hostage to the past: An encounter with Mervyn de Silva

Jun 21, 2010 3:13:57 PM- transcurrents.com

By Asanga Welikala

The eleventh anniversary of the death of Mervyn de Silva, the great Sri Lankan journalist and editor, falls on 22nd June.


Mervyn de Silva

I once had an extraordinary encounter with Mervyn, although sadly as it turned out, at the very empennage of his life.

In a wholly spontaneous chat that lasted less than two hours, we (mostly he) talked about the international use of force for humanitarian interventions and Robin Cook’s ‘ethical foreign policy’ in the then fashionable Blairite project (Mervyn wasn’t impressed), F.C. de Saram and M. Sathasivam (and the politico-sociological implications of their fractious dispute over the All Ceylon captaincy in 1947), billiards and snooker (I knew that the latter was invented in the Indian Army, but did not know of the debate whether it was the Jalalabad officers’ mess or the Ootacamund Club), and the relative merits of a pre-prandial aperitif at lunchtime (for one of which he was on his way).

It was one of those conversations one remembers forever, and it was a near complete pastiche of Mervyn de Silva, the journalist, the intellectual, the conversationalist, the man. It was a sparkling demonstration not only of the breadth of his intellect and the depth of his knowledge, but also his palpably genuine interest in the human condition, both underpinned by the total absence of that plague that afflicts progress in every sphere of Sri Lankan life: deferential hierarchy. He knew he was a living legend, and saw no need to reiterate it.

This conversation was prompted by my telling Mervyn that I had implicitly relied on his dispassionately analytical, yet deeply empathetic essay about the politics that led to and followed Black July 1983, in my first editorial in the Michaelmas term of 1995 as co-editor of the S. Thomas’ College Magazine (which, incidentally, was a case for a federal Sri Lanka). That intelligent and elegant, but disquieting essay was published as ‘Paradise – and Hostage to the Past’ in the Far Eastern Economic Review in January 1984, a chilling coincidence with the dystopia Orwell described in his novel ‘Nineteen Eighty Four’.

Two and a half decades later in post-bellum Sri Lanka, its major themes are as relevant as ever.

In anatomising the conflict of ethnic nationalisms, Mervyn expressly relied on the history of Evelyn Ludowyck, who like him was part of mid-twentieth century Sri Lanka’s admirably urbane, liberal intelligentsia associated with the golden age at Peradeniya. It is history that celebrates pluralism, embraces modernity, and above all, enables tolerance and coexistence. It is also history that has no time for the trite hagiographies of either humanitarianism or genocide that are now dominant on either side of the ethnic divide.

Not only that historical tradition and its proponents, but also the necessary civic institutions for its survival have been under siege since the 1950s, an attritional process that Mervyn vividly described in 1984 in relation to the Jayewardene administration’s acts of democratic manipulation. In 2010, we see the full autocratic possibilities of our monarchical presidency being exploited to the hilt, if only more efficiently with the benefit of the experience and precedents of the last twenty-five years.

Mervyn also saw clearly the impending dangers of the clericalism that has become such an insalubrious feature of democracy in our country today. As he explained with both truth and economy, “…as in the Shah’s Iran, suppressed dissent has found refuge in an impregnable forum, the temple, and an articulate spokesman whom nobody dares to touch, the monk.” The ghastly intolerance that is associated with monks in politics requires no retelling, but the wider lesson is about the failure of democratic institutions in delivering good government and prosperity which might have obviated these electoral adventures with monks in politics in the first place.

Like many in his generation, Mervyn was a Butskellian social democrat who believed in the power of government to do good, and in the developing world context, public ownership of the commanding heights of the economy. He could therefore be expected to be sceptical of the post-1977 liberalisation of the economy, and he warned of “…the question of whether the new economic strategy has in fact exacerbated old conflicts [which] presents unexpected dilemmas for both policymakers and their foreign advisers and patrons.”

Sri Lanka of course has never experienced genuine capitalism, in which the full potential of free trade and commerce to generate wealth in ways in which consumption, savings and investment become a mass phenomenon rather than the preserve of a privileged few, and which enable government to ensure the level playing field, reinvest in growth and development, and escape assistance dependency. Instead of a properly functional free market under the rule of law, what we have had was colonial capitalism, then a disastrous experiment with state capitalism, and finally various forms of what has been accurately called ‘crony capitalism’.

Aside from this, the role of economics in the exacerbation of conflict in Sri Lanka has been in the failure of both the state and the markets to generate sufficient prosperity so as to enable any kind of meaningful stake-holding by citizens in the economy, not whether one or the other was the better mechanism of redistribution. But Mervyn was right to draw attention to the fact that unplanned and inequitable growth would generate discontent and add impetus to existing conflicts.

No model of economic development is likely to succeed in Sri Lanka without certain key foundations, which include less politicised and stronger institutions, the rule of law and a sustainable settlement of our political problems. The post-war economic paradigm of state-led developmentalism we see in 2010 may well succeed in the medium term, but it will not be sustainable in the longer term without also addressing those broader institutional and political issues. And those have been the issues which time and again have come back to haunt peace, democracy and development in our country.

“Each fresh confrontation and every violent eruption becomes an instant invitation to an overpowering onrush of self-righteous recidivism,” wrote Mervyn, “against which reason can only erect the feeblest defences.” Mervyn made this observation in the context of what had transpired in 1983 generally, and in relation to Cyril Mathew and his toxic brand of Sinhala-Buddhist supremacism in particular. It is unlikely to be what the evangelist Reginald Heber had in mind when he wrote of Ceylon as ‘where every prospect pleases, and only man is vile’, but it surely is what the stanza, of which Mervyn was fond, means in present day Sri Lanka.