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Liberal economics and illiberal politics

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The international community has been visibly angered by the Liberation Tigers’ call for a boycott of last Thursday’s Presidential elections and for thus contributing to the defeat of Ranil Wickremesinghe of the United National Party (UNP). It has been no secret that Wickremesinghe was the international community’s preferred candidate and not the victorious Mahinda Rajapakse of the United People’s Freedom Alliance (UPFA) - even though diplomatic protocol precludes even the most vocal critics of the LTTE from saying so. The decision of the island’s Tamil community, including the majority of those in Colombo, to not exercise one of the limited rights they enjoy under Sri Lanka’s constitution to contribute to the installation Mr. Wickremesinghe as head of state has been met with incredulity and, in certain quarters, intense displeasure.

In the past few years, Mr. Wickremesinghe and his UNP have been embraced by the liberal world order as one of its own who has embraced the enlightened philosophies of globalisation and economic liberalisation. During his brief tenure in power, for example, he created the Ministry for Economic Reform, appointing the eloquent free-market warrior, Milinda Moragoda, to it. Mr. Wickremesinghe’s ‘Regaining Sri Lanka’ plan won the enthusiastic backing of the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. The economic blueprint might have been drafted by the international finance organisations, so complete was its embrace of neoliberal principles. The ethos of his administration was to roll back the state from the market: to privatise state assets, restructure government and open Sri Lanka’s markets to global trade.

The decision by the Tamils not to back Mr. Wickremesinghe is incredulous, especially when the argument that there was no difference for them between him and Rajapakse is impossible for advocates of the liberal peace to accept. Surely he is no chauvinist, they argue. Such a strong advocate of globalisation is surely beyond the petty politics of ethnicity, or so Mr. Wickremesinghe’s sponsors may suggest. Indeed, contemporary assumptions tend not to associate ethno-supremacists with pro-globalisation policies. Indeed, Mr. Wickremesinghe’s backers’ point to Rajapakse whose economic protectionist policies and Sinhala nationalism seem to go hand in hand.

But from a Tamil perspective, Mr. Wickremesinghe’s failure in redressing Tamil grievances go hand in hand with his successful regeneration of Sri Lanka’s economy - and military. The UNP administration inherited a failing economy and a debilitated military, both of which they proudly claim to resuscitated with the help of the international community. In the meantime, aside from the cessation of violence, the mainly Tamil Northeast has enjoyed few benefits from peace.

The question is whether anything was going to change if Mr. Wickremesinghe won. Tamil scepticism was confirmed most vividly during the closing stages of the UNP election campaign, when the party began unabashedly courting the Sinhala nationalist vote. Most surprising, it was Milinda Moragoda, the arch neo-liberal in Mr. Wickremesinghe’s coterie who launched the most crucial thrust, gloating over the government’s successes in dividing the LTTE, and generally undermining Tamil aspirations via the peace process.

Mr. Moragoda’s statements are the most incontrovertible evidence in recent times of the dichotomy in Sri Lanka between liberal economic policies and liberal political philosophies. The post-election tussle for power within the party between Mr. Wickremesinghe and more vociferous hawks within the UNP confirm Tamil concerns that beneath the party’s skin of liberal values, beats a Sinhala nationalist heart.

Contrary to expectations one might expect of globalist liberals, when Mr. Wickremesinghe’s party has sat in opposition in the recent and more distant past, they have consistently reverted to hawkish positions on the ethnic question. Most recently, for example, the UNP failed to support mechanisms for sharing aid with the LTTE. The much vaunted Post-Tsunami Operation Management Structure (P-TOMS), for example, collapsed by the wayside without a murmur from the UNP – save a grumble about not enough Sinhalese being in the structure (intended for the Northeast). In 2000 and earlier, the UNP even echoed the sentiments of ‘extremist’ parties such as the Janatha Vimukthi Perumana (JVP) in blocking President Chandrika Kumaratunga’s devolution proposals, however limited these may have been.

Mr. Wickremesinghe’s version of the party is not the first to mix ethnocentric politics with liberal market policies. The UNP administration of (first Prime Minister, then) President J. R. Jayawerdene in the 1980s is arguably the most ardent economic reformist in Sri Lanka’s post independence history. But he also brought in the present constitution concentrating power in a Presidency and entrenching the dominance of Sinhala Buddhism. Furthermore, by specifying unassailable thresholds for constitutional reform, Jayawerdene ensured that reform of the Buddhist state is a practical impossibility.

However, President Jayawerdene’s seriously flawed ethnic policies were ignored by the International Community, who welcomed the inaugural President’s economic reforms as welcome move away from the socialist policies of the 1970s. In the global context of the Cold War, Western powers prioritised Presdient Jayawerdene’s shift towards capitalism over other ‘minor’ issues such as his anti-Tamil policies. And this is the leader, after all, who unashamedly declared in 1983: “I am not worried about the opinion of the Jaffna people now...Now we cannot think of them. Not about their lives or of their opinion about us... The more you put pressure in the north, the happier the Sinhala people will be here...really, if I starve the Tamils out, the Sinhala people will be happy.”

With the induction of Sri Lanka into the capitalist block viewed as the more essential project, the international community turned a blind-eye to the growing state violence against the island’s Tamils. Academics such as Ronald Herring argue that the external financial assistance rendered to Sri Lanka to encourage further economic reform exacerbated the ethnic conflict in several ways. In his 2001 study, Herring argues, for example, that “the expanded flow of benefits enabled by aid was skewed” in favour of the Sinhalese. But, Herring argues, “escalation of ethnic conflict was not caused by foreign aid or structural adjustment,” but by “decisive contributions made by an autonomous sphere of politics.” The resulting foreign-assisted state patronage of specific ethnic groups fuelled communal tensions.

Herring singled out the Mahaveli scheme as an example of foreign aided state projects which exacerbated ethnic tensions. Drawing up to 45% of project aid between 1979 and 1981, the scheme was drawn up by the Jayawerdene administration, and resulted in “a large influx of ethnically motivated [Sinhala] colonists and settlers who come to the area with a confrontational attitude.” But despite utilising international aid to implement an ethnic colonisation programme, President Jayawerdene was hailed by his sponsors as an poster boy for economic liberalism.

Much like his uncle, Mr. Wickremesinghe had hoped to dazzle the International Community with the economic virtues of his administration and simultaneously placate the Sinhala nationalist constituency. Had the Tamil community played their part last week he would most likely have succeeded. But they did not and he has not. But regrettably, last week’s outcome is another misjudgement of Sri Lanka’s ruling parties by the international community, just like those which have in resulted fiscal, political and military assistance to the state to the detriment of the Tamils. As in the past, with Mr. Jayawerdene and Mrs. Kumaratunga, the international community continues to judge Sri Lanka’s leaders on their economic platforms and their dovish rhetoric, rather than their concrete actions on the ground.

The international community need to begin accounting for the variety of political, economic and religious dichotomies that plague the island, if they expect to be able to influence the emergence of a liberal peace. Amid these anomalies, it should come as little surprise that ethno-chauvinism and economic liberalism can be espoused at the same time by a mainstream political party keen to secure power and international aid at the same time. One might argue that international assessment of Colombo administrations’ hawkish or dovish character needs to be conducted on the same basis as the Tamils: a measure of what it actually delivered, not pledged.

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