Articulating Ethics and Politics: A Leftist Engagement With The Present
"Assuming the LTTE finished is fantasy masquerading as fact"
By Qadri Ismail
Che Guevara once said: “if you tremble with indignation at every injustice, then you are my comrade.”
The distillation of a lifetime of agitation, intervention, reflection, this statement, the opposite of a soundbite, pithily articulates ethics with politics. We’ve known, at least since Aristotle, that the two are inextricable, yet distinct.
Che links them together in exemplary leftist fashion. If one understands ethics, following Levinas loosely, as deference to the other; and politics, following Derrida equally loosely, as a calculus about the possible; then Che’s formulation insists that, while the leftist might not (be able to) act upon every injustice, she must be moved. Narcissistic indignation is called identity politics.
[Che Guevara appeared on Meet the Press at CBS Television on December 13, 1964-AP]
When the leftist acts, she cannot be deterred by considerations of difficulty, of (im)possibility. They get overdetermined by the ethical imperative, the banal necessity, to resist injustice, oppression of the other. Not the political calculation whether resistance might be fruitful. Necessity, as opposed to choice, characterizes leftist action.
In other words, the leftist is not and has never been a realist. Revolutions, national liberation struggles, campaigns against patriarchy were not inspired by opportunists. Neither is the Tamil struggle for justice in Sri Lanka. The legitimacy of that struggle doesn’t stand or fall by the record – the abysmal, atrocious record – of the LTTE.
And yet, as one writes, many on the left, thinking the LTTE in the past tense, advice the Tamils to adopt a “realist,” that is to say mendicant, position regards the Rajapakse regime: reconcile with the actuality of its overwhelming power. Take what you can get. In effect, surrender.
As one writes, that same regime continues to bomb, from air and ground, the tiny territory still in LTTE hands. It kills between 10 and 20 Tamil civilians every day, maims dozens of others. Many little children are now amputees. They might be safe if the LTTE, unconscionably, does not hold them as human shields; even, horribly, shooting those who try to flee. But that is no alibi for this government’s brutality.
Yet, as one reads, one finds no indignation, no outrage, from sections of the left. There is, of course, the mandatory, parenthetical – pathetic – gesture of concern about civilian casualties. But the brutality of this government, it appears remarkably enough, should not shape our response to it. Only the “fact” of its assumed victory.
Take, as symptomatic instance, a recent position paper by Sumanasiri Liyanage. It expresses with clarity a position held by many about “the post-LTTE era.” But assuming the LTTE finished is fantasy masquerading as fact. Its record suggests resilience, not oblivion. Weakened, broken as the guerillas are – they’ve never been so unpopular, even amongst their own – there’s nothing inevitable about their disappearance from our politico-military terrain. Regardless, the leftist commitment to the justice of the Tamil struggle is not bound to the fate of the LTTE.
Liyanage’s undeniable commitment to peace with justice has been established over decades, with great consistency. I have admired his many thoughtful interventions, especially in the last couple of years. But, now – and this is said with loss, not anger – he effectively whitewashes the regime. Arguing that “revolutionary” constitutional change is “unlikely” – the word litters the article – he advances realistic “reform” as the position we should all adopt. One could ask, in response: if U.S. slaves had considered the likelihood of ending their captivity, if they had realistically calculated their chances against the overwhelming power of the white establishment, would they have rebelled? Unlikely.
Incredibly, Liyanage doesn’t once identify the Rajapakse regime as responsible for any – not a single – part of the horrible Sri Lankan present. The “JVP and Hela Urumaya…[are] the main advocates” of exclusivist nationalism. The SLFP, it would appear, doesn’t share this ideology, is innocent of blame.
As one writes, the Rajapakse regime has announced plans to house Vanni Tamils in specially constructed detention camps for up to three years. These camps will include schools, hospitals and banks. The populace inside will be held captive, policed by the military. The Rajapakses, brazenly, have even approached the U.N. and other international NGOs – the same organizations its spokespeople routinely slander – to fund these centers akin to concentration camps.
Given the career – brief, but consistently exclusivist – of this government, one doesn’t need to be an astrologer or political scientist to foresee the next stage of the plan. Over the past two years, led by the JHU’s Champika Ranawaka and Basil Rajapakse, the regime has systematically alienated Muslim land in the east. Sinhala settlers cannot be far behind.
There is little reason to doubt that the Vanni territory, once denuded of Tamils, will also be colonized with Sinhalese. This is the Rajapakses’ “final solution” to the national question: make the Tamils politically irrelevant. Physically eliminate any resistance, even the non-violent. Concentrate the rest in camps.
In this regard, the only moot question is whether Sinhala nationalism, which has systematically followed such a strategy since D. S. Senanayake in the late 1940s, learned this from Zionism – or whether the Israelis copied the Sri Lankan example. Not coincidentally, the two states have been co-operating openly since the mid-1980s. Mahinda Rajapakse, opposition M.P., may have been a champion of Palestinian rights, a progressive, in those 1980s; his regime is comparable to the Israeli state.
In such a context, advocating reform would be to debate how many Sinhalese should be allowed to colonize the north. Not whether colonization should occur in the first place.
But “reform” and “revolutionary change” are not the only alternatives. Resistance – the unyielding demand for peace with justice – is another. Liyanage, however, frames his position with canny rhetoric. Reform, after all, sounds realistic, possible, even reasonable. Naming its alternative revolutionary – spin worthy of U.S. conservatives, the (white) guys who call universal health care “socialism” – is delegitimizing. For, in the worldview fabricated by George W. Bush, that Liyanage reproduces, perhaps unwittingly, a synonym for revolutionary is terrorist.
Yes, the LTTE could be accused of terrorism – if one finds the term productive. Among national liberation organizations, its brutality is unmatched. Its record is too well known to require iteration here. A powerful case could be made that the LTTE and its leadership must face trial for war crimes. But, surely, an equally powerful case could be made about leading figures of the government.
On the other hand, if one advocates engagement with the regime, shouldn’t one also advocate the same with the LTTE? Ideologically, both embody exclusivist, extremist – if not totalitarian – nationalism. Both equate dissent with treason. Gotabhaya Rajapakse actually said this to BBC television, following the murder of Lasantha Wickrematunge. The LTTE has systematically assassinated resistant Tamils, including K. Padmanabha and Rajini Thiranagama. The only difference is that the LTTE’s brutality extends for decades. Simply put, it has killed, intimidated, devastated more. But considerations of number should not determine leftist ethics.
Liyanage knows this. He refers to the Tamils and Muslims as “numerically small nations,” desiring not to other the Tamils and Muslims by calling them “minorities.” Yet he cannot frame his position outside the logic of number. For, one could ask, after Derrida: at what number does a nation become small or large? Would we also need a cage for the medium-sized? Would the Chinese be extra-large? Is there some secret book of rules, available only to social scientists, with the right answers?
More importantly, does it matter? Does their number have anything to do with the fact that we’re moved, appalled, outraged by the oppression of the Tamils – or the Palestinians, for that matter? Should indignation not serve as the launching pad of our response?
The argument for engagement, for reform, is an argument for accepting the continued domination of the Tamils and Muslims. It negates the very basis of the Tamil struggle, for peace with justice. Even worse, it provides the Rajapakses with an alibi. For, one must ask: given that the president himself turned the consensus within the APRC, for greater devolution, into acceptance of the status quo, what are the chances of this regime, even minimally, reforming the state? Unlikely.
The stagist argument – finish the LTTE first, then attend to Tamil “grievances” – is, at best, counter-factual, presumptuous. Both about the LTTE, that it can’t re-emerge; and the regime, that it will suddenly, miraculously, turn democratic.
But what are the chances of the Rajapakses, who cannot countenance journalistic resistance – witness the murder of Wickrematunge, the continued imprisonment of J. S. Tissainayagam – suddenly becoming democratic? Is it “realistic” to expect this regime, which refuses to honor the 17th amendment, to discover the virtues of constitutional governance? Or, as Jayadeva Uyangoda begs, Mahinda Rajapakse to display “statesmanship”? You know the answer.
The Sinhala left has a long, impressive, honorable record on the question of social justice. Despite being woefully underfunded, we can boast of free universal health care and education through university. The United States cannot. Despite the best efforts of J. R. Jayewardene, in the 1980s, our trade unions thrive. They even strike every now and then. Without the left, this would not be the case.
On the national question, however, the organized left, with the rare exception of a Vickremabahu Karunaratne or Sarath Muttetuwegama, has been a paragon of complicity with Sinhala nationalism. It bears iteration that the same Colvin R de Silva, who said with astute prescience in 1956, that establishing Sinhala as the only official language would lead to separatism, sixteen years later effectively instituted Buddhism as the state religion. The militant Tamil resistance was inaugurated that same year, 1972. Then, as now, members of the CP and LSSP adorn the cabinet.
Just last January, after the murder of Wickrematunge, after the rampages of this regime against Tamil and Muslim civilians, documented over three years, an old leftist – I don’t have the heart to mention his name – told a mutual acquaintance: “Mahinda is basically a progressive.”
Surely, the task of our intellectual left must be to hold these positions to account, not make them role models!
Our task is to insist, and keep insisting, that there cannot be a just peace in Sri Lanka without radical – not reformist, or revolutionary, but radical – constitutional change. (Revolutionary change, a complete, total break from the past, is impossible – even conceptually.) A form of confederalism, if that’s what it takes; which accounts for Muslim, as well as Tamil demands.
The equality of all citizens, including those outside the northeast, must be institutionalized in something like a bill of rights. As importantly, the symbols of the state must signify such equality. This means no special status for Buddhism. And redesigning the flag, which as it now flies reproduces – with its dominant, armed, scary lion and two miserable stripes for the minorities – Sinhala nationalist dominance.
This will take a long struggle, but reform – surrender to Sinhala nationalism – takes us down a dead-end. This will involve rethinking the tired clichés about peace we’ve inherited from social science, conflict management. This entails much labor, patience, anger and frustration, but we must abide by our convictions, not yield to our most conformist instincts.
Edward Said once told me, when I asked of his vocal opposition to the Oslo accords, that they could only lead to the continued subjugation of the Palestinian people – while providing Israel with the alibi of commitment to peace. Despite tremendous pressure, mostly from the PLO, he refused to yield his position. Refused, that is, to settle for mere reform.
The point is not that he turned out to be right. He was no realist. Rather, after a lifetime of agitation, intervention, reflection, he had conviction. He understood that the leftist, when confronted with surrender or resistance, doesn’t have a choice. Like Che, Said knew how to articulate ethics with politics.