Ilankai Tamil Sangam

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Et Tu, Brute?

by Publius, Groundviews.org, June 20, 2007

And he is statesman material not only because he is a committed parliamentarian and democrat, but also because he understands foreign policy and international relations in the tradition of Bandaranaike père.

The sheer extremism of the Rajapakses may diminish, but not excuse, Samaraweera’s many historical sleights in his paean to Bandaranaike: the man who institutionalised supremacist Sinhala Buddhist nationalism in the parochial pursuit of personal ambition, and who sowed the seeds of secessionism through the Official Languages Act and the pusillanimous failure to keep his promises to Tamil federalists under the Bandaraniake-Chelvanayakam Pact.

Not that I lov’d Caesar less, but that I lov’d Rome more.”
- Brutus, in Julius Caesar (III, ii, 22)

Former Foreign Minister Mangala Samaraweera M.P, together with his colleague and fellow Member Sripathi Sooriyarchchi, crossed over to the Opposition yesterday. This morning in Parliament he has explained why. It is a clever and obviously carefully crafted speech that demonstrates Mr. Samaraweera’s not inconsiderable political talents. It may not shake the Rakapakse firmament to its foundations, not just yet at any rate, but it does hold out the tantalising prospect of a tiny glimmer of hope against the prevailing miasma of authoritarianism and cynicism.

Mr. Samaraweera’s speech is interesting for several reasons. First, by outlining an ideological framework with which to rationalise his actions, Mr. Samaraweera is seeking to establish his credentials as the thinking man’s (and woman’s) politician. He harks back to the centrist ideals of social democracy (avowedly) and anti-elitist populism (strategically) that Mr. Bandaranaike set out at the inception of the SLFP, and argues that the Rajapakses are undoing all of this. Borrowing from his favourite thinker, Anthony Giddens, he will in Opposition, “forge a radical centre based on the principles of social democracy, away from the politics of extremism and intolerance that is prevalent today.” Implicitly echoing Dr. Johnson’s sentiment that the patriotism of the kind peddled by the Rajapakse administration is the last resort of the scoundrel, Mr. Samaraweera shows how he is different in his commitment to human rights, democracy and a just and peaceful settlement to the ethnic conflict that celebrates the diversity of Sri Lanka and “our shared humanity.” And he is statesman material not only because he is a committed parliamentarian and democrat, but also because he understands foreign policy and international relations in the tradition of Bandaranaike père.

The sheer extremism of the Rajapakses may diminish, but not excuse, Samaraweera’s many historical sleights in his paean to Bandaranaike: the man who institutionalised supremacist Sinhala Buddhist nationalism in the parochial pursuit of personal ambition, and who sowed the seeds of secessionism through the Official Languages Act and the pusillanimous failure to keep his promises to Tamil federalists under the Bandaraniake-Chelvanayakam Pact.

Second, Mr. Samaraweera’s speech is interesting for the insights it provides about the realignments, coalitions and players engaged in what may well be the beginnings of a fundamental shift in Sri Lankan politics. This is revealed by his long vote of thanks, which as is the custom on these occasions, includes his constituents, political allies and mentors. Expectedly, Chandrika Kumaratunga figures prominently, which tells us that while the former President may be down, she is certainly not out. In a symbolic relocation of the SLFP’s political centre and spiritual home from Medamullana back to Horagolla, moreover, the SLFP-Mahajana faction will be launched at a ceremony of homage to the Bandaranaike Samadhi at Attanagalla.

There is an honourable mention for Ranil Wickremasinghe, the Leader of the Opposition, and potential strategic ally. Mr. Samaraweera’s circumspection in the manner of his references to radical centrism as well as his vision for peace, indicates care not to upset his established relationship with the JVP. Finally, there is the plaudit for the Supreme Court and the independence of the judiciary as the remaining bulwark against what would otherwise be a “fully fledged police state.” Among Colombo’s chattering classes, it is no secret that the Chief Justice, by instinct and record, is a political player and not merely the head of the judiciary, and in Sri Lanka’s power structure, his sanction would be a crucial element of any stratagem to oust the Rajapakses. In any event, the continued membership in Parliament of both Samaraweera and Sooriyarachchi depend upon the Supreme Court holding with them. The distasteful irony of this politicisation of the court’s role is, for these calculations, beside the point. It may also explain the Chief’s perceptibly anti-government pronouncements in recent days. Sordid, if true, no doubt, but such is the reality.

Given the recent spate of unprincipled and avaricious parliamentary crossovers, against a backdrop of labyrinthine horse-dealing and consequent suspicions as to politicians’ motives, there is understandable public cynicism about the parliamentary process. With this speech, Mr. Samaraweera must be hoping that history and public opinion will place him, not with the UNP dissidents who crossed over for crumbs off the table, but with Bandaranaike, Athulathmudali and Dissanayake.

However, Bandaranaike is in many ways the political progenitor of Mahinda Rajapakse and his brand of catastrophic nationalism, and who presided over the watershed race riots of 1958. Before they became apostles of peace and democracy, Athulathmudali and Dissanayake were members of the government that had more than a tacit role in the pogrom of July 1983. Mr. Samaraweera, for his part, is associated with the infamous Wayamba Provincial Council elections of 1999, which remains the nonpareil of election-related violence in the annals of Sri Lanka’s electoral history. In more ways than one, therefore, Samaraweera’s career so far mirrors that of these men when they chose to slay Caesar for the avowed love of Rome. That they all paid with their lives for their trouble is an inconvenient truth. But if his calculated gamble pays off, Mangala Samaraweera can expect bounteous rewards in the highest stakes of Sri Lankan politics.