Sri Lanka: The giants of politics past

H├ędi HAMDI hamdi at
Tue Dec 19 08:14:59 UTC 2006

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Harold F. Schiffman wrote:

>The giants of politics past: The 71st anniversary of the LSSP
>December 17, 2006 at 8:45 pm
>By Rajan Philips
>The Lanka Sama Samaja Party was founded on 18 December, 1935, by twenty
>five activists united in their opposition to British colonial rule. It was
>also the beginning of the Left movement in Sri Lanka that has shown
>consistent unity of purpose as a movement despite the frontal divisions
>between the LSSP and its offshoot, the Communist Party, at the beginning,
>and other organizational splits in later years. The founding leaders of
>the Left, Philip Gunawardena, N.M. Perera, S.A.  Wickremasinghe, Colvin R.
>de Silva, Leslie Goonewardena and Edmund Samarakoddy, were political
>giants not only among their contemporaries but also in the entire modern
>history of Sri Lanka. They were extraordinary in stature and intellect,
>grand and sweeping in their ambitions and vistas not for themselves but
>for their country, and virtually born with the ethic of disciplined hard
>work and abundance of selfless generosity.
>They were joined by no less formidable men and women of succeeding
>generations during the formative years of the Left movement that were also
>the years of the Second World War and the last years of the colonial rule.
>The succeeding galaxy included Doric de Souza, Bernard Soysa, S.C.C.
>Antonypillai (Tony), V. Karalasingham (Karlo), Selina Perera, Vivienne
>Goonewardena, P. Kandiah, A. Vaidialingam, Pieter Keuneman, Hector
>Abhayavardhana, Bala Tampoe, N. Sanmugathasan, and Osmund Jayaratne among
>others. There were others, like William de Silva, T.B. Subasinghe, and
>Anil Moonesinghe, who began their political life in the LSSP, moved on to
>other political parties and made significant contributions. Seventy years
>are a long time in politics and of the giants of the Old Left only two are
>living: Hector Abhayavardhana and Bala Tampoe. The LSSP and the CP now are
>much less than a shadow of what they were till 1977 both in parliament and
>out of parliament. The leading lights of the two parties Philip, NM,
>Colvin, Bernard and Pieter were exemplary parliamentarians who easily
>outperformed everyone else in the legislature, in substance and in show.
>Outside the legislature, according to credible commentators, it was the
>working class movement spearheaded by the two Parties that first hastened
>the exit of the British rulers and later helped the survival of
>parliamentary democracy itself by sustaining a strong Opposition in
>Yet, for all their resourcefulness and commitment, the Old Left failed to
>win political power on its own terms. Friendly commentators have pointed
>to a number of reasons: the tendency to be carried away by revolutionary
>enthusiasm ahead of the islands social realities, the inability to address
>the cultural peculiarities of the Sri Lankan societies, and the
>debilitating effects of doctrinaire splits and personality clashes.
>Despite all these shortcomings, the Old Left leaders have left giant
>footprints on Sri Lankas political sands. For them, as Hector
>Abhayavardhana memorably put it in his obituary to Colvin R. de Silva,
>politics without power was still worthwhile.
>Bold Vision
>The founding leaders of the Left set themselves apart from other political
>leaders of their time, notably D.S. Senanayake and S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike
>among the Sinhalese and G.G. Ponnambalam and S.J.V. Chelvanayakam among
>the Tamils, by their unequivocal opposition to British rule, their
>programmatic campaign for economic and social justice, and the principled
>fight against communal (or ethnocentric) politics. Put another way, the
>tensions between the Left and the communal Right in these three areas Sri
>Lankas position in the world, economic and social justice for its people,
>and the nature of the relationship involving the state and the different
>ethnic groups significantly influenced the course of politics in the years
>before independence and the years between 1948 and 1977. The relative
>positions of the key players and the political dynamic that ensued offer
>both inspirations and lessons for the present time and the challenges it
>The Left's opposition to British rule was inspired by a bold vision for
>Sri Lankas place in South Asia and the world. Unlike other leaders who
>were seeking communal and even feudal political advantages by pleasing the
>British authorities, the leaders of the Left threw themselves against the
>British rulers by linking the goal of Ceylonese independence with Indias
>epic struggle for freedom. The fusion of the interests of the people of
>South Asia should ideally have been pursued even more vigorously after
>independence. But the British left South Asia far more divided at
>independence than it had ever been previously. The painful hangovers of
>the partition of British India into India and Pakistan and the subsequent
>amputation of Bangladesh are even today standing in the way of a greater
>South Asian unity that is so necessary for the people of South Asia to
>deal with the challenges of globalization.
>Sri Lanka's post-independence foreign policy under D.S. Senananayke was
>aptly described by N.M. Perera as Anglo mania and India phobia. The
>disenfranchisement of the Indian plantation workers was a prime
>illustration of this phobia. The rapprochement of the Indo-Sri Lanka
>relationship under the Bandaranaikes was presented and used, at least in
>Colombo, more as a Nehru-Bandaranaike dynastic link than as a step towards
>South Asian unity. Even while professing friendship with Nehrus India, the
>Bandaranaike governments severely ignored the example of Nehrus leadership
>on such foundational questions as secularism, state language policy, and
>the system of devolved governance. Equally, the Tamil political leaders
>who shifted the goal posts from federalism to separation look to India for
>support for separation but refuse to look at the Indian Tamils experience
>of eschewing separatism in favour of federalism.
>The Old Left leaders who had fraternal connections with the Socialist and
>Communist Parties traditionally favoured close relationship with India in
>regional and international issues and learning from Indias experiences in
>regard to religious, linguistic and ethnic questions. Seen in this light,
>it is passing strange that the Communist Party of India  Marxist (CPM),
>Indias principal Left Party, should now entertain fraternal relationship
>with the JVP based on its numerical size and disregarding its overtly
>communal substance.
>Economic and Social Justice
>The Old Lefts crowning achievements, which separated the Left from the
>rest of the political pack, were clearly in the areas of economic and
>social justice. Its contributions to policies and programs in these areas
>began from the very inception of the LSSP in 1935 and lasted until the
>Lefts defeat in the 1977 elections. It did not matter whether the Left was
>in opposition, when it was able to pressurize governments to implement
>progressive programs; or, it was part of a government, when the Left
>Ministers introduced and implemented programs themselves.
>Not surprisingly, the names of the Old Left leaders have become associated
>with specific policy fields and programs; namely land reform (Philip
>Gunawardena), irrigation and agriculture (S.A. Wickremasinghe), finance
>and gemming industry (N.M. Perera, Bernard Soysa), the plantation
>industries (Colvin R. de Silva, Doric de Souza), public transport (Leslie
>Goonewardena, Anil Moonesinghe), public housing (Pieter Keuneman), and
>industry (William de Silva, T.B. Subasinghe). One cannot find such a range
>of individual stamps on specific policy fields among the leaders of other
>parties as one does among the Left leaders. There were of course notable
>exceptions such as C.W.W. Kannanagara in education, D.S. Senanayake, C.P.
>de Silva and Dudley Senanayake, who had a lifetime association with
>irrigation and land settlement, G.G. Ponnambalams brief leadership in
>state industries, and R. Premadasas preoccupation with housing. The latter
>preoccupation, it must be recognized, may have been successful
>vote-garnering politics but it was poor economics in that Mr. Premadasa
>used his enormous political powers to over-allocate resources to the
>housing sector and produced questionable results.
>In hindsight and in the context of our current shortcomings, one could see
>the lack of focus and interest on the part of all political leaders in the
>development of physical infrastructure. Education has become a dogs meal
>after sixty years of free education, and the insightful criticisms that
>N.M. Perera made at the time of the introduction of free education have
>unfortunately been validated. The most alarming socioeconomic challenge of
>our time is the growing disparity between the Western Province and the
>rest of the country in terms of income, physical and social
>infrastructure, and economic opportunities.
>What this means is that the hugely capital intensive irrigation and land
>settlement projects that have been the stock in trade policy of UNP
>governments have not yielded the desired results. Equally, the state
>industrial development championed by the SLFP governments proved
>unsustainable and has been abandoned. Globalization and free market
>policies only aggravate and not address the problems of the hinterland. In
>the past the Left leaders and intellectuals like G.V.S de Silva and Hector
>Abhayavardhana offered alternative approaches to addressing the agrarian
>question and expanding the village economy. Sadly, this intellectual
>tradition seems to have now disappeared, and the JVP is more interested in
>entrenching its political base in the village but has little to offer by
>way of expanding the village economy.
>Quirks of History
>In the 1977 election, for the first time since independence, the electors
>in their first-past-the-post wisdom shut the two Left Parties out of
>Parliament altogether. A whole generation has grown up since. Those who
>voted at the 1977 election are now older than 47 years and constitute only
>25% of the countrys population, or 35% of the voting population. For the
>rest of the adult population, the Old Left and its giant leaders are no
>more than history. And the history of the Left could hardly have attracted
>their attention amidst the global consumerism, political chaos and
>inter-ethnic violence that have made and marred their lives over the last
>thirty years.
>Even those who are familiar with the Left now are likely to associate the
>Left entirely with the JVP, considering that nearly 80% of the countrys
>current population were of age 15 or under at the time of the JVPs first
>insurrection in 1971, and 60% were in a similar situation during the JVPs
>second coming in 1988. It is fair to say that the JVP is now more a fly in
>the ointment than a legatee of the Old Left movement, a viscerally
>ethno-centric party in contrast to the cultural universalism of the Old
>On the Tamil side of the ethnic divide stands the LTTE, the JVPs Siamese
>twin in every political sense, the two claiming to represent the chosen
>and the rejected children of 1956. Just as the JVP now occupies the
>political space that was once dominated by the Old Left, the LTTE is the
>occupier of the space that had been the preserve of the parliamentary
>Federal Party of the Tamils. Demographically, the bulk of the Tamil
>population, born after 1970 and 1977, is also unaware of the inclusive
>legacy of the Old Left, the national prominence of generations of Tamil
>parliamentary political leaders, and of the time when the Sri Lankan state
>was more inclusive and not at all militaristic.
>By a historical quirk, the Federal Party too was founded on 18th December,
>but fourteen years after the LSSP, in 1949, one year after Lankas
>independence. In their hey day the politics of the Left and the politics
>of Federal Party differed from each other like cheese from chalk, and
>Karalasinghams revolutionary schema projecting the traditional alliance of
>the working classes and the minorities never materialized. The fault
>though was not in the theory but in his application of it to the
>circumstances in Sri Lanka.
>The 1977 election that decimated the Old Left also marked the end of the
>Federal Party, but with a difference: a new generation of the Federal
>Party had reincarnated itself as the Tamil United Liberation Front,
>abandoning federalism and avowing separation. The rest is recent history,
>post Old-Left. In a sense that is depressing, the country entered the most
>dangerous decades in its modern history without the giants of the
>preceding years and with only the pigmies left to preside over the
>unfolding of our Karma.
>There is no denying, however, that the mistakes of the Old Left and the
>even greater blunders of the other political leaders and organizations
>have contributed to our current ethnic predicaments. What is perhaps truer
>is that the present crisis has reached critical proportions mainly because
>of the failure of successors to learn from the mistakes of the past and
>avoid repeating the old blunders, and the failure also to draw upon the
>more positive legacies of our past leaders on citizenship, language rights
>and devolving state power.
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