In recent days, two pieces of news related to China have widely caught the eyes in Sri Lanka. Early this month, after U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s sneaky visit to China’s TaiwanMore
“You are in the end – what you are.” ~ Goethe (Faust)
22 is not perfect. Far from it, perhaps light-years far. Yet, in a season of defeats and setbacks, it is a win for Lankan democracy, and for those Lankans who would be free citizens rather than obedient subjects or terrified children waiting for the next saviour.
The passing of the 22 (officially 21) came hard on the heels of another democratic victory. The Supreme Court effectively killed the deadly Rehabilitation Act. If President Wickremesinghe or the Rajapaksas dreamed of using the Act to punish past dissent and discourage future protests, that dream is now dead.
The two wins demonstrate that however flawed or even dysfunctional the Lankan political system might be it’s not broken. It can be built on, improved. The better kind of ‘system change’, the sort that harms less, roots deep, lasts long.
By 2014, the Rajapaksas had disembowelled every single democratic institution in the country, from the highest court to the lowliest pradesheeya Sabha. Only periodic elections remained, a heads-we-win-tails-you-lose game the family believed it had mastered. Wrongly. Mahinda Rajapaksa lost the presidency and democracy made a comeback. The Sirisena-Wickremesinghe administration removed the executive’s mailed fist from the collective back of the judiciary and paved the way for more institution-building than any previous administration via the 19th Amendment and the Right to Information Act.
Electoral defeat also revealed the ordinary clay in the Rajapaksa makeup, diminishing the shock-and-awe effect created by the war-victory. High King Mahinda and Supreme General Gotabaya were downsized to normal size, for a while. The memory of that reduction had faded by 2018, but not dead. In 2022, as normal life collapsed under the cumulative weight of shortages and queues, that memory would return. Without its liberating effect, the peaceful revolt of the middle class which constituted the first inspiring phase of the Aragalaya couldn’t have happened.
Thus the importance in the death of the 20th and the safe birth of 22nd, especially if ‘system change’ is a real goal and not just a radical-sounding slogan or an excuse to scuttle reforms. The next step is its speedy implementation. What was done to the democratising 17th Amendment by the PA and the UNP mustn’t become the fate of 22: death by non-implementation. Having taken the sensible step of backing the amendment, the SJB and the JVP should focus on getting the constitutional council and the national procurement commission up and running. That is of far greater democratic consequence than holding local government elections, an exercise which will cost billions and change little.
The composition of COPE, COPA, and the Peoples’ Council has caused much handwringing and derisive laughter. Deservingly. But almost all the undesirables nominated to those bodies were elected by the people in 2020; more worryingly many would be re-elected thanks to the preferential vote system. A new electoral system is as much of a democratic (and anti-corruption) necessity as abolishing the executive presidency.
President Wickremesinghe’s decision to set up a committee to map a new electoral system may – or may not – be a ruse to postpone elections. Either way, it opens up a path to a desirable and popular goal. If the proposal is a Wickremesinghe-bluff, the Opposition can surely call it by coming up with reform blueprints which combine the best features of the PR and first-past-the-post system? Pertinently, what is the Opposition’s stand on the Election Commission mandated campaign finance legislation awaiting cabinet nod? Surely enacting that piece of legislation should be as much of an oppositional priority as calling for elections?
The Quotidian Rot
In the 19th century, there was an American political organisation called the Know Nothing Party which fared well electorally for a while. A nativist entity (not in the Native American but in the WASP-supremacist sense) it was anti-Black, anti-Catholic, and anti-Semitic. That party is now gone and mostly unremembered, but its spectre survives and thrives across the world. From the US to India, from Italy to Sri Lanka, know-nothing (and learn-nothing) voters and politicians are making choices that invite chaos.
US humorist Andy Borowitz asked, “What happens when you combine ignorance with performing talent?” and answered, “A president who tells the country to inject bleach” (Profiles in Ignorance: How America’s Politicians Got Dumb and Dumber). Or a president and a political family who take over a functioning economy and run it to the ground.
Mr. Borowitz divides ignorance into three stages, ridicule, acceptance, celebration. In Sri Lanka, we ridicule ignorance and accept it by voting the ignorant in. When hiring a driver, any sensible person would prioritise driving skills and experience over the width of a smile, the jauntiness of a moustache or the smoothness of a tongue. But the same person may act antithetically when deciding who should be at the national wheel for the next five years. After all, every Rajapaksa fault we decry now was fully or partly in evidence during their previous terms. Accountability is necessary not just for politicians, but also for the people who vote them in and out. If our people fail to understand their culpability for their own plight, how can they be persuaded not to remake the same old mistakes?
As Liz Truss’ tenure as the UK’s prime minister entered its 6th chaotic week, Daily Star, a British Tabloid, launched the lettuce challenge. Would the premiership of Ms. Truss last longer than the lifespan of an ordinary iceberg lettuce? The lettuce won. And perhaps saved our former imperial masters from going the Lankan way. Had we stuck to the parliamentary system, we could have got rid of the Rajapaksas without the murder and the mayhem (no, it wasn’t all poetic and peaceful; the lynching of two men is murder and the burning of scores of houses, irrespective of the unsavoury nature of many of their owners, is mayhem). Institutional guardrails matter, especially where Know Nothings hold sway.
The rot is not limited to the government. Sajith Premadasa recently held a cosy powwow with that doyen of ideological racism, Dr. Gunadasa Amarasekara, and his majoritarian-supremacist National Organisations Collective. According to the media unit of the leader of opposition, “Opposition leader elucidated the importance of not making further amendments to the 13th Amendment,” and, said that “There are no ethnic minorities, there are different ethnic groups, all should get together and rebuild the country.” According to the Sinhala version, the opposition leader, “will not agree to any proposal that will lead to the fragmentation of the country by empowering the 13th amendment.” No ethnic problem, no need for a political solution: wasn’t that the Rajapaksa mantra too? The 13th Amendment equates division, wasn’t that the abiding cry of the most virulent of racists? Is this an attempt to shift to a Gotabaya-lite position and win with Sinhala votes only?
Mahsa Amini, Nika Shakarami, Sarina Esmailzadeh: three names amongst many unnamed victims of a struggle that began with a simple demand, the right to not wear a hijab.
Lankans probably look with a sense of complacent superiority at the events in Iran. But the rallying slogan of the Iranian schoolgirls, telling clerics to get lost, is valid here as well. After all, we too are plagued with clerics who try to impose their will on secular matters they know nothing about, from economics to sex education, often with distressing success.
Iran’s ongoing uprising, with its stirring cry of Woman, Life, Freedom, began when a young Kurdish woman died in the custody of the Morality Police. We don’t have a morality police, but morality policing is not unknown here, including on matters sartorial. In the aftermath of the Easter Sunday massacre, a coat-and-tie clad top state official tried to make sari-wearing mandatory for female public officials. Banning first year female students from wearing trousers seems to be a fairly standard component of the orgy of cruel and unusual activities that passes off as ragging in Lankan universities.
The dean of arts faculty of the Peradeniya University is on record saying that students studying in the English medium are banned by the Students Union from using common facilities such as the canteen. Universities in Sri Lanka are not havens of democracy, open mindedness, and intellectual curiosity but deserts of intolerance, tyranny, and backwardness. Ragging is both a symbol of that mindset and its progeny. And all this by student unions and organisations under the control of the JVP and the FSP. The two parties can end this barbarism with one command (inner-party democracy is more alien to them than it is to their bourgeois counterparts). They haven’t, yet. In the universities where the two parties hold sway, even simple acts of dissent like opposing ragging is a punishable crime. The Rajapaksas are not the only problem we have.
On the need for deals
The petition filed by the Transparency International against the decision makers of the current disaster, starting with Gotabaya, Mahinda, and Basil Rajapaksa, has been granted leave to proceed by the Supreme Court. The case will hopefully cast some much needed light on who ordered, who enabled, and who consented to what in making this avoidable tragedy.
The 2019 November unfunded tax cut was the first outpost on that road to disaster, the error that made every other error necessary. Repairing that mistake is a necessary step in rescuing the economy without imposing even more burdens on the already overburdened poor. Will the Opposition, especially the economically more sensible SJB, propose constructive amendments to tax proposals instead of taking the easy way of damning the whole? One obvious need is to increase the tax-free threshold from the proposed 100,000rupees per month to at least 150,000rupees per month, to cushion the lower middle class and small businesses. Rates for upper brackets can be increased to make good the loss. (The GMOA is threatening strike action, true to form. Since most of that trade union’s members would not have become doctors without our free education system, their opposition to direct taxes is particularly despicable).
What is morally indefensible and politically dangerous is to increase taxes – any taxes – without touching the innumerable privileges enjoyed by the political class. The opposition can make a deal to combine tax increases with the drastic pruning of these giveaways – the pension system, duty free vehicle permit racket, giving official residences to all ministers and an official vehicle to all elected representatives, to mention but a few. Not likely, since the one subject on which the entire political class is agreed (from the UNP to the JVP, from the Rajapaksas to the TNA) is the sacrosanct nature of these unearned and unmerited privileges.
In her poem Working on the World, A Revised Improved Edition, Polish poet and 1996 Nobel Laureate Wislawa Szymborska, approaches her utopia of a good life and a good death in stages, starting with “fun for fools and tricks for old dogs.” Striving for incremental changes is more effective than dreaming of or chasing utopias. Given where we are, no improvement, however minute, should be scoffed at. Foreign remittances have gone up in August and September. Litro is making profit again and reducing prices. The Welisara Magistrate Court has ruled to provide legal protection to a young lesbian woman from the persecution of her parents (and the Welisara police). Women parliamentarians across the aisle have prepared an amendment defining anyone under 18 as a child. The Orwellian attempt to use the police to gather information on Colombo residents has been abandoned. To a drowning nations, straws can spell survival.
Our descent into economic disaster did not happen overnight. Our emergence from that abyss cannot happen overnight either. A parliamentary election might help that long climb or it might not. How an election impacts on the crisis would depend on the percentage of citizens willing to let facts rather than emotions decide their vote. If even 10% of voters cleave to the Rajapaksas (the real figure is likely to be double) despite their culpability for our common plight, an election is likely to worsen rather than alleviate the crisis.
A fragmented parliament, and the resultant horse trading for power and influence while hunger soars and poverty deepens, can sunder hope in the democratic system. Once popular faith in electoral solutions breaks down, the Sinhala masses are more likely to seek salvation not from the JVP or the FSP, but from the military, and the monks, their brothers in blood and faith.
The saga of 22 shows that Ranil Wickremesinghe is not a Rajapaksa clone. Had the opposition put personal rancour and political needs aside and worked with Mr. Wickremesinghe once he became the president, a better 22 and other reforms could have been possible. Who can doubt that post-election every party currently in opposition will make whatever deals possible to gain a larger share of the power-pie? Better to make some deals now with the Wickremesinghe government, not for the sake of power, but to promote the sort of political and economic reforms that would help Lankan democracy and Lankan people survive the crisis, and perhaps even emerge a little stronger.
Following article is based on the speech made by the author at the parliament during the second reading of Twenty-Second Amendment to the Constitution Bill
It was expected that this Bill would restore the essence of the more progressive 19th Amendment. But unfortunately, centralisation of power around a single individual still exists. The checks and balances that were expected in a meaningful manner have not been included. The Independence of the public service, transfer of power to Parliament, checks and balances that could curtail the immense powers of the President, transfer of powers between President and Prime Minister are missing. Fundamentals of public finance and accountability too are missing.
Some of the offending areas are the President holding portfolios, appointing Ministers without the advice of the Prime Minister, President’s discretion to dissolve Parliament early, ability to control or influence 7 of the 10 members of the Constitutional Council thereby undermining the independence of the instittutions to which appointments are made through the Council.
But whatever the shortcomings and discrepancies are this Bill is a step in the right direction. To vote against it would be to perpetuate the present system. In arguing for perfection we should not turn out to be the enemy of the good.
No doubt advantages and disadvantages were envisaged at the time the Presidential System was introduced in 1978.The advantages trotted out at that time were
- Quick decision making
- Presidential discretion in Appointments. The appointees are directly responsible to the President.
- The whole Country elects the President and therefore entire Country is the Electorate.
- Fixed tenure of office which thereby ensures stability to the country.
- President above Party Politics and therefore insulated from Party Politics.
On the other hand the disadvantages are as follows-
- Prone to dictatorship or abuse of office being dangerous to the democratic process.
- Separation of powers can cause delays in the execution of government programs if executive-legislative relations are not properly managed. Therefore friction among government organs was contemplated.
- Lack of flexibility in Tenure of office. A Parliamentary system could act according to circumstances and be flexible.
- Very expensive to operate. The Parliamentary system was considered to be more cost effective. The President’s power to spend directly creates opportunity for lack of fiscal discipline and even all forms of corruption.
- Due to the absence of Party discipline unlike in a Parliamentary system, the relationship between the Executive and the Legislature is prone to disagreements and less easy to manage. With the Government Party now being of one hue and the President of a different colour this possibility is even more plausible.
- Presidential lobbying can encourage corruption. Suppose certain groups within the Governing Party decide to join the Party of the President there can be misuse of power by the President.
We have seen the contradictions that emanated due to lack of understanding between the President and the Legislature during the time of Madame Chandrika as well as during the Yahapalanaya government.
Therefore concentration of power in a single individual can have innumerable implications.
But it was thought that a strong Executive could bring benefits to minorities. The President if he wanted to, he could with his unfettered powers bring relief to the problems of the minorities. But how far that would be possible would depend upon the personality of the President. So far Ranil has not catered to the voice of the chauvinists and the champions of ethnocracy.
The transitional provisions in the Bill allows the present incumbent to continue until the full term of office of the present Ninth Parliament. Therefore as a person somewhat acceptable to non-Sinhala Buddhists also he has an opportunity to take up matters of importance for the future of this Country. As I understand them, they are –
- Repayment of National Debt through proper fiscal management. The way we diplomatically manage the International Community is intrinsically interwoven with this problem.
- Take cognisance of the recent UN Resolution with only seven Countries standing by Sri Lanka and commit the Country to conform to the expectations of the World Body. The Country’s supporters among the International community have steadily decreased every year and the next time I expect China too to abstain from voting for Sri Lanka. Our bravado statements have only exposed us as to who we are.
- Knowing the nature of the Tamil Ethnic problem and the long history of the Sri Lankan Tamils extending beyond 3000 years in this Island, it would be better for the Country if the President could solve our problem once and for all times by granting total devolution of powers to the North and East of Sri Lanka in order that all communities could travel hand in hand forward within a United Sri Lanka.
I would submit that the Transitional Provisions of the Bill has given the opportunity for the incumbent President and the members of the present 9th Parliament to work out solutions for our long-standing problems fully and effectively.
It is my studied opinion that a confederation would be the ideal system of Government for this Country.
But before the present Constitution is changed the services of India would be paramount due to their responsibility in getting the Thirteenth Amendment into our Constitution. Any attempt at the arbitrary replacement of the present Constitution with a new Constitution could deprive the Tamils of even the limited powers granted under the Unitary Constitution by the Thirteenth Amendment. Therefore in the formulation of a new constitution for Sri Lanka, the services of India would be sine qua non as far as the future of the Sri Lankan Tamils in Sri Lanka is concerned.
It is a centuries old truth that ‘an apple a day keeps the doctor away’ but in the Indian Occupied Kashmir, the administrative authorities are trying their utmost to keep the apples away from the people. For the last many months, the people of the Indian Occupied Kashmir are protesting that the Indian authorities are stopping their apple-laden trucks on the highways to India. In the name of security checking, the highway-police halts those trucks for days and days on the way and as a result of it, the apples get rotten.
Apple-growers of the Indian Occupied Kashmir say that it all is being done just to push them into an inferno of financial loss. They say that they don’t have any industry based financial activity or manufacturing units in their area and the only source of income for the local people is nothing but producing and selling the fruit specifically the apples. The BJP government thinks that by keeping the people of Kashmir engaged in ‘bread and butter’ related problems and by depriving them of all sources of earning, it can crush the desire as well as the struggle for independence in Occupied Kashmir.
Though China is the most prominent rather leading producer of Apples all over the world but Kashmiri Apples have a unique taste and a particular colour of their own and are considered the backbone of Kashmir’s Income. Experts say that the Kashmir Valley produces over 22 lakh metric tons of apple which is more than 70 per cent of the total apple production in the country. Besides halting the transit passage of apples from Occupied Kashmir, the government of India has managed to promote the import, legal as well as illegal, of apples from Iran. The growers of apples in Occupied Kashmir say that their produced fruit is already facing threat due to the Iranian apple invasion into the Indian market and the artificially created hurdles by the Indian government in transportation of their fruit is posing a serious challenge to them. Now they are so helpless that they could do nothing but protest.
The Aljazeera published a report on this situation in the last week of September which refers to the statement of a major union leader who said that thousands of trucks carrying apples of millions of dollars’ worth have been stopped on the highway. “The government says it all is because of routine construction work on the highway but the facts are otherwise. The government has ill-willingly planned this road-work in the days when this route is used for transportation of apples”, said another desperate grower. He further said talking to the media, “Highway repairs are causing extensive delays along the Srinagar-Jammu highway, which connects the disputed region to the rest of India, meaning huge losses.”
According to the Kashmir Media Service the government of India is not only creating hurdles for the trucks carrying Kashmiri apples via high-ways but on the bypass routes also. These routes include Mirbazar-Ashajipora road, Dooru-Verinag Road and Dalwach-Mehmoodabad road via Qazigund. The Indian authorities have imposed ban on the movement of heavy goods vehicles on all these three inner routes. The only purpose behind is to give the Kashmiri apple growers a real tough time and bar them from sending their fruit to the Indian central market.
The plan of snatching a better source of income from the people of the Indian Illegally Occupied Jammu and Kashmir is not limited to halting the fruit laden trucks on the highways and bypasses; there are some other cruelly inhuman measures also adopted by the Indian authorities; felling of grown up apple trees is also one of such measures. According to media details, farmers in Jammu and Kashmir are crying out in despair as the National Highways Authority of India has uprooted and felled trees from their orchards in order to build new roads. After abrogation of Article 370, land has been acquired rather grabbed from the farmers on the basis of laws that have been repealed.
Farmers are protesting that they have not been compensated according to current market rates. Mohammad Afzal, an apple-grower said talking to Raja Muzaffar of DownToEarth , “My 20 to 25-year-old fruit trees uprooted by the government would have given me livelihood for the next 20 to 30 years. But they were murdered mercilessly. Around mid-day on March 30, 2022, the earth movers of NKC Projects Pvt. Ltd, assisted by the site engineer of NHAI and the officials of land-record trespassed into our farm and started uprooting fruit trees which included plum, pear, apple and quince. The local police were also accompanying them.” He added that all the uprooted trees were in full bloom, with huge flowers and were supposed to yield a bumper crop this season.
Reports say that some 600 acres of agricultural land has been acquired for a 62-kilometre highway connecting Pulwama with Ganderbal via Budgam as part of the Srinagar Ring Road project. This is the area which has apple-trees in abundance and designing the ring-road this way means there would remain not even a single apple tree in the area. The government of India is misguided by the thought that after being deprived of their basic source of income, the people of the valley would get engaged in searching for some other financial resources to earn their bread and in this way their attention from the independence movement would be diverted. But things are altogether different rather opposite to the ‘dream’ of the Indian government. This cruel decision of felling the apple-trees has made the people more aggressive and determined against the Indian atrocities in the valley. The point ignored by the Indian authorities is that ‘A hungry tiger fights fierce’.
Views expressed are personal
There seem to be a number of things in common between Chinese President Xi Jinping and Russian President Putin.
Whatever may be the electoral practice in China and Russia, Xi Jinping and Putin have declared themselves as life President of their respective countries. Both of them are presidents of countries which have enormous landscapes and huge mineral deposits and agricultural production. Above all, both of them have huge greed for territorial expansion of their countries by fair or foul means and do not hesitate to use force and aggression to realise their greed. Further, it has now become obvious that both of them are merciless leaders and do not mind slaughtering innocent people in comparatively weak countries if such forceful actions would enable them to achieve their greed and ambitions.
China forcefully entered Tibet and slaughtered innocent and peace-loving Tibetans and is now ruling Tibet by suppressing freedom China has imposed an iron curtain over Tibet. China has entered into war with India more than once and is now occupying thousands of kilometres of Indian territory and is claiming that Arunachal Pradesh, a province in India should be part of China. China is threatening to invade Taiwan, while it is suppressing the demand for freedom in Hong Kong with a heavy hand. China’s atrocities in suppressing the Uighurs in China have been widely reported and condemned all over the world. Not only this, China is having disputes with Japan over Senkaku island and with other southeastern countries with regard to the South China Sea. Cleverly, it has brought several developing countries under it’s control by extending loans which they cannot repay.
Xi Jinping-led China is now seen as villain of peace by several affected countries and discerning observers all over the world and they seem to feel helpless.
Putin launched aggression against Ukraine, saying that it has to do this to prevent Ukraine from joining NATO which, according to Putin, would be a threat to Russia’s territorial integrity. However, the fact is that NATO has not taken any decision to admit Ukraine as a member in NATO and Putin’s stand that Ukraine would be a NATO member is a figment of his imagination. Obviously, Putin wants to occupy Ukraine as part of his territorial expansion scheme. In the last several months of the war, several thousands of Ukraine citizens have lost their lives, many of them have left Ukraine as refugees and infrastructure facilities in Ukraine have been extensively destroyed.
Putin-led Russia is now seen as villain of peace by several countries and discerning observers all over the world and they do not know how Russia’s aggression can be stopped.
What is noteworthy here is that both Xi Jinping and Putin do not care about world opinion and have no commitment to world peace. They are totally unconcerned about the sufferings of others due to their greed for territorial expansion and aggressive military actions.
In recent memory, the only person who can be compared to Xi Jinping and Putin is Hitler and there seem to be a lot of things in common between Hitler, Xi Jinping and Putin.
Tibet and Ukraine seem to be in the same boat now, as both these countries have become the victims of greed and merciless offence by Xi Jinping in the case of Tibet and Putin in the case of Ukraine.
However, the difference between Tibet and Ukraine is that Ukraine is getting strong support from NATO countries and USA to defend itself and sympathy from several other countries, whereas Tibet was left high and dry by every country and leaving Tibet at the mercy of merciless China.
One is not sure whether Tibetans now living in Tibet know about the developments in Ukraine at all, as no one from other countries in the world is allowed to enter Tibet and Tibetans living in Tibet may not know about the world happenings at all. However, Tibetans who are now living in several countries around the world can clearly compare the sufferings of the Tibetans at the hands of Xi Jinping-led China and the sufferings of citizens of Ukraine at the hands of Putin-led Russia.
Certainly, world peace is going for a toss now with Xi Jinping-led China and Putin-led Russia are using force to realise their greed and territorial expansion plans they do not care as to what many members of UNO say and many people in the world think about them.
It appears that the peace in the entire world is now at the mercy of Xi Jinping and Putin, who have emerged as the villains of peace.
Ensuring liberation of Tibet from Xi Jinping led China’s control and ensuring territorial integrity of Ukraine by stopping Russia’s aggression are the two most desirable expectations and hopes of peace-loving citizens all over the world.
Views expressed are personal
Brazil’s first round of elections, held on October 2, yielded a major victory for the man who held the presidency from 2003 to 2010, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva. Winning 48 percent of the vote in a multicandidate race, Lula now heads to a runoff against incumbent president Jair Bolsonaro, who won 43 percent. It’s the first chapter of a dramatic comeback for a leader who was once hailed as the epitome of Latin America’s resurgent left, who was then imprisoned on corruption charges by a politicized judiciary, eventually was released, and has now emerged onto the political scene in a very different nation than the one he once led.
A founding member of Brazil’s Workers’ Party (PT), Lula ran for president several times before winning in 2002. A year later I recall sitting in a huge stadium in Porto Alegre for the second annual World Social Forum (WSF), getting ready alongside tens of thousands of people to hear the new president speak. The WSF was an organized response to the World Economic Forum held in Davos, Switzerland, where world leaders annually hobnob with corporate executives to explore capitalist solutions to the problems created by capitalism.
In 2003, the crowds that had gathered in a Porto Alegre stadium to explore alternatives to capitalism greeted Lula with coordinated roars of “olè olè olè Lula!” It seemed at that moment that everything could change for the better, and that, in the words of Indian writer Arundhati Roy, who also addressed the WSF, “another world is not only possible, she is on her way.” Indeed, Lula’s rewriting of Brazil’s economic priorities emphasizing benefits for low-income communities was a welcome change in a world seduced by neoliberalism. He went on to win reelection in 2006.
In subsequent years, Lula moved closer toward the political center. Maria Luisa Mendonça, director of Brazil’s Network for Social Justice and Human Rights, says, “I don’t think Lula is this radical left-wing person” today. In an interview she explains, “many social movements had criticisms of the Workers’ Party before because they thought [the party] could move to make structural changes in Brazil.” Still, she maintains that Lula’s changes to Brazil were profound. “The amount of investment that the Workers’ Party did, in education for example, [was] unprecedented.” She asserts that “they really made concrete improvements in the lives of people.”
Fast-forward to 2018 and Bolsonaro swept into power, glorifying the ugliest aspects of bigoted conservatism and making them central to his rule, and decimating Lula’s legacy of economic investments in the poor. Business executives in the U.S. celebrated his win, excited at the prospect of a deregulated economy in which they could invest, and from which they could extract wealth.
Today Latin America’s largest democracy has been shattered by the COVID-19 pandemic, during which Bolsonaro’s fascist and conspiracy-fueled leadership elevated snake oil cures above commonsense scientific mitigation. The Amazon rainforest has suffered the ravages of unfettered deforestation, and its Indigenous inhabitants have been exploited beyond measure.
Bizarrely, some corporate media pundits in the United States place equal blame on Bolsonaro and Lula for Brazil’s worrisome status quo. Arick Wierson writes on NBCNews.com, “these pressing problems are the result of the policies and actions of Brazilian leadership over the past two decades—inextricably linked to both the Lula and Bolsonaro administrations.”
The Economist advises Lula to “move to the center” in order to win the election, implying that his social and economic agenda is too leftist. A PT spokesperson told the Financial Times that if Lula wins a third term in the October 30 runoff election, he plans to focus on the “popular economy,” meaning that “the Brazilian state will have to fulfill a strong agenda in inducing economic development,” which would be achieved with “jobs, social programs, and the presence of the state.”
It speaks to the severe conservative skewing of the world political spectrum that a leader like Lula is still considered left of center. According to Mendonça, “I don’t think that investing in education and health care, in job creation, is a radical idea.” She views Lula as “a moderate politician,” and says that now, “after a very disastrous administration of Bolsonaro, Lula again is the most popular politician in the country.”
Most Brazilians appear to have tired of Bolsonarismo. A Reuters poll found that Lula now enjoys 51 percent support to Bolsonaro’s 43 percent ahead of the October 30 runoff race. But, just as the 2016 U.S. presidential race yielded a win for Donald Trump over Hillary Clinton, the candidate who had been widely expected to win, there is no guarantee that Lula will prevail.
And Bolsonaro, who has been dubbed the “Tropical Trump,” has worryingly taken a page out of the disgraced American leader’s 2020 election playbook in claiming ahead of the first round of elections that Lula loyalists plan to steal the election. “Bolsonaro has been threatening not to accept the result of the election,” says Mendonça. “His discourse is very similar to Trump’s discourse.”
Just as Trump—in spite of damning and overwhelming evidence of his unfitness for office—remains disconcertingly popular among a significant minority of Americans, Bolsonaro enjoys a stubborn level of allegiance within Brazil. He has reshaped the political landscape so deeply that the lines between reality and propaganda remain blurred.
“We had years and years of attacks against the Workers’ Party,” says Mendonça. She asks us to “imagine if all mainstream media [in Brazil] were like Fox News.” Additionally, Bolsonaro has built what she calls “a huge infrastructure to spread fake news on social media.” And, like Trump, Bolsonaro enjoys support from evangelical churches.
“The challenge is how you resist that type of message,” worries Mendonça. She dismisses claims that Brazil is politically polarized as too simplistic, saying that it “doesn’t really explain that there was this orchestrated effort to attack democracy in Brazil.” Putting Brazil into an international context, she sees Bolsonaro as “part of this global far-right movement that uses those types of mechanisms to manipulate public opinion and to discredit democracy.”
The nation and the world that a resurgent Lula faces are ones that require far more sophisticated opposition and organized resistance than when he last held office more than a decade ago.
Ultimately, the challenges facing Lula, the PT, and Brazilians in general are the same ones that we all face: how do we prioritize people’s needs over corporate greed, and how do we elevate the rights of human beings, of women, people of color, Indigenous communities, LGBTQ individuals, and the earth’s environment, in the face of a rising fascism that deploys organized disinformation so effectively?
This article was produced by Economy for All, a project of the Independent Media Institute.
“In a year of scarcity…Louis XV was hunting, as usual, in the forest of Sénart. He met a peasant carrying a bier and inquired… ‘For a man or a woman? A man. What did he die of? Hunger’.” – Jules Michelet (Historical view of the French Revolution)
On the sharp edge of the precipice, the UK halted, reversing back to relative safety.
A massive tax cut was the showpiece of the mini-budget of PM Liz Truss and chancellor of exchequer Kwasi Kwarteng. Reaction was immediate. Markets revolted. The pound crashed. The IMF issued the kind of rap-across-the-knuckles-statement it generally reserves for the Third World. The Bank of England pledged to buy UK government bonds worth 65 billion pounds (73 billion dollars) in a desperate attempt to reassure markets and save pension funds.
The prime minister and the chancellor of exchequer remained unmoved.
Then the Tory party’s dissent broke out into the open. With the annual party conference in session, more than a dozen MPs aired their disconcert in public. The naysayers included several Conservative grandees. Party chairman issued an implicit threat to deny nominations to those who would vote against the mini-budget. But the rebellion could not be staunched. Opinion polls showed that the tax cuts, especially reducing the top rate from 45% to 40%, and removing the cap on bankers’ bonuses were deeply unpopular with the electorate. More than half the voters wanted Liz Truss out.
Faced with the prospect of losing a parliamentary vote on the mini-budget and a general election, PM Truss backtracked. “We get it, we have listened,” said the chancellor of exchequer who had reportedly celebrated the tax cut at a champagne dinner with financiers. The worst was averted by throwing the most objectionable overboard – the slashing of the top tax rate. Democracy, and the dissent it enabled, saved the day.
Compare this with what didn’t happen in Sri Lanka when the Rajapaksas unveiled their own crazy tax cut. The objectors were few, the UNP and the JVP, some voices from civil society, international rating agencies. But from the ruling coalition, there was not a word of protest. Those who are now busy painting themselves in saviour-hues, from Dullas Alahapperuma, G.L. Peiris, and Charitha Herath to Wimal Weerawansa, Udaya Gammanpila, and Maithripala Sirisena, were as silent as the dead.
Tory MP Damian Green said, “It’s a political no brainer that if we end up painting ourselves as the party of the rich and the party of the already successful, then, funnily enough, most people won’t vote for us and we lose,” (The Guardian – 3.10.2022). In Sri Lanka, the SLPP said nothing about the Rajapaksa-giveaway to the rich, because the Rajapaksas were the party of the Sinhala-Buddhists. The majority safely tethered with minority-phobia, the coming parliamentary election was as good as won.
The Rajapaksas could get away with manifestly disastrous policies for so long because they could count on the backing of a majority of the majority. Another key contributory factor was the absence of inner-party democracy, an autocratic plague common to all Lankan parties. There was also the bureaucracy’s entrenched habit of going along with politicians up to the precipice and beyond. In the absence of the necessary human factor, institutional guardrails became reduced to stage props.
A sovereign default and two popular uprisings later, very little seemed to have changed. The factors that pushed us down the precipice are impeding our puny efforts to crawl out of it, starting with the Rajapaksas and the SLPP.
Politics of hunger
Ranil Wickremesinghe began his premiership by telling the truth to the people about the country’s disastrous condition. That was perhaps his finest hour.
Today the opposite is happening. His ministers, Rajapaksa-acolytes to a man and a woman, have reverted to covering the soiled reality in clean linen. They deny the width and depth of hunger, of malnutrition, of poverty. Listening to them, a visiting Martian could be pardoned for thinking that nothing much ails this country. Most worryingly, even now, these know-nothing politicians can find bureaucrats to corroborate their lies.
This at a time when the FAO and the WHP have included Sri Lanka among the 48 countries identified as hunger hot spots. Recently the Health ministry rejected a UNICEF report on Denial not just covers up the problem. It removes the need to look for solutions, the duty and the responsibility to take action.
Sooriyawewa, that Rajapaksa pocket-borough, is currently in the crosshairs of a malnutrition spat. Medical professionals claim an 80% malnutrition rate. The SLPP part of the Government decry the statistic as calumny. In the meantime, in the Namadagaswewa Maha Vidyalaya in Sooriyawewa, the principal and the staff have set up a food bank to feed hungry children. Teachers bring an extra food packet or two daily and deposit in the bank; needy students withdraw the packets.
This innovative solution was possible because the staff noticed that many students fainted from hunger during school hours. If the staff went into denial, if they blamed the fainting on voluntary dieting or enemy action, the food bank would not have come into being; and increasing hunger would have resulted in mass dropouts.
We must acknowledge the abyss before we can escape it.
Denial is not just counterproductive. It is also stupid. You can lie about growth rates and foreign reserves. But you can’t convince the poor that they are rich or the hungry that their stomachs are full. Poverty and hunger can be hidden only from those who are neither poor nor hungry. And in Sri Lanka, that percentage is shrinking.
We are living in times of dissonance. The IMF chief has warned about people on the streets, again, a global problem. There’s nothing more dissonant than a small percentage of the populace living in the lap of luxury in a time of general want. In his tome on the French Revolution, historian Jules Michelet mentions that for centuries, observers were amazed at the patience of the French people, their acceptance of intolerable economic and political injustices. But there comes a day when even the most worm-like worm turns.
While denying the gravity of the economic crisis and the depth of public suffering, the SLPP is busy pushing for an expanded cabinet. They won the first round when President Wickremesinghe gave in and appointed 38 parasitic state ministers. If he expands the cabinet, he will fail the ‘smell test’ again and destroy his credibility, even among those who are grateful to him for ending fuel and gas queues.
More pertinently succumbing to Rajapaksa pressure will impede President Wickremesinghe’s capacity to implement his economic agenda, to the country’s detriment. After the appointment of that herd of state ministers, the Government has no moral right to talk about inefficient and overstaffed state sectors. Given the public funds squandered on maintaining this herd in a state of luxury, how can the people be asked to tighten their belts any further? The rot is already visible in a tendency to take the easy way out, eschewing the hard road out of the crisis, the one that will address the root causes, the one President Wickremesinghe keeps on referring to in his speeches. The reversion to a disproportionate dependence on indirect taxes and the abolishing of 15% interest rate on deposits by the elderly are cases in point.
Ranil Wickremesinghe is not a Rajapaksa clone as the more extremist or simple-minded elements within the opposition insist. The ‘Ranil Rajapaksa’ slogan may work as propaganda but it shouldn’t have become the basis of political analysis or strategising. For instance, if the opposition came to a short-term deal with President Wickremesinghe about a common political and economic program and a parliamentary election in 2023, the SLPP could have been deprived of their bargaining and blackmailing power. The Rajapaksas were able to make a comeback partly because the opposition and Wickremesinghe turned their guns on each other. Incidentally this comeback may be electoral as well, going by the SLPP’s huge wins at the Panadura and Gampola cooperative elections. The world provides other worrying examples. In Brazil, more than 43% voted for the incumbent Jair Bolsonaro, bucking opinion polls, pushing the election into a second round.
When everything becomes reduced to survival, that very obsession threatens survival. The high security zone gazette fiasco could have been avoided with a little forethought. But the Rajapaksas are hooked on immediate gratification and their ethos is winning in government circles. In August, it looked like President Wickremesinghe with his economic sanity had the upper hand. By the end of September, he seems to be reduced to a voice in the margins, with the Government walking, talking, and smelling like the Rajapaksas.
In history, art can be omen. This year’s top winner at the Cannes film festival was ‘Triangle of Sadness’. A super luxury yacht filled with jetsetters is engulfed in a storm at sea. The turbulence outside creates an upheaval within. Power relations are upended, with a former cleaner gaining control. Real life is not that neat. The last may not become the first; cleaners may not win in the end. But the time before that revanchist end could become filled with violence, visceral and indiscriminate. The democratic narrative is undermined when injustice becomes entrenched. The virtues of stability and order sound hollow, when poverty and hunger overwhelm a populace.
Political illiberalism and economic neoliberalism: a lose-lose scenario
Tsering Dorje was an ordinary Tibetan man who discussed the importance of the Tibetan language with his brother on the phone. For that ‘crime’ he was detained for a month in a re-education facility by the Chinese authorities.
Re-education or rehabilitation centres sit ill with democracy. Irrespective of the name they masquerade under, these are Orwellian entities aimed at turning thinking citizens into mindless subjects.
After the high security zone gazette departed, in ignominy, came an attempt to set up a Bureau of Rehabilitation. Its targets, apart from the usual terrorists and extremists, would be drug addicts (turning drug dependence into a political crime) and ‘any other group or persons who require treatment and rehabilitation.’ Would the ‘persons who require treatment and rehabilitation’ include the thuggish son of state minister Prasanna Ranaweera? Or the ministerial goons who attacked petrol station attendants in Maharagama for refusing to violate the QR code? If not, why not?
The Bureau’s Governing council is to include the secretary of defence. The current holder of that title has a credible claim to the label extremism. At an October 2017 Viyath Maga confab in Gampaha, retired major general Kamal Gunaratna defined the backers of Sirisena-Wickremesinghe administration’s draft constitution as traitors who deserve death. They should be denied normal last rites as the JVP/DJV did to its victims during the second insurgency, he further stated.
Commenting on this pronouncement, Mangala Samarweera said, “We need not reply to filthy statements of racists, yet, I should voice the concerns of democracy-loving people who stand against the barking of those blood thirsty and power hungry political elements. If they can make such gory comments on a civil platform when they are out of power, people with some sense could imagine the crimes they had committed when they held ruling power.” To take his argument a step further, what kind of rehabilitation will such people implement if the Bureau of Rehabilitation becomes a reality?
Addressing a memorial meeting for Gowri Thavarasa, lawyer and human rights defender, the former director of CID Shani Abeysekara said, “I had produced so many before courts. But I understood what it meant only when I was produced before the courts”. When Abeysekara was persecuted by the Rajapaksas, he was saved by the commitment of civic-minded lawyers like Thavarasa and by a judicial system that retained the backbone. A functioning system of justice and an active civil society are protectors of the last resort for every one of us.
Whatever the faults of liberal-electoral democracy, it provides the best available protection – however inadequate – for the poor and powerless from the depredations of political and economic power-wielders. By keeping avenues of peaceful dissent open, it also functions as a proven safeguard against violent disorder and systemic instability. The UK may have escaped a fate partially similar to Sri Lanka because, unlike Sri Lanka, its electoral democracy is also quite liberal.
Instead of making the Lankan system more liberal, as he did during the 2015-19 period, President Wickremesinghe is initiating or permitting a return to the illiberal policies, practices, and ethos of the Rajapaksa era. By doing so, he is helping to stifle whatever corrective mechanisms and safety valves still exist. At a time a global economic and political storm is brewing, and more and more families are pushed below the poverty line nationally, this mix of political illiberalism and economic neo-liberalism cannot ensure order or save the Government (it can’t even maintain tourist arrivals; an outsized obsession with terror laws and repression is not a lure for tourists). By increasing societal alienation, it will just bring another day of reckoning closer, a more violent one.
For every complex problem, there is an answer that is clear, simple and wrong’ — H.L. Mencken (American writer and humorist).
The validity of this contention in Sri Lanka can be gauged if we listen to ‘pundits’ on radio and television providing solutions to the most devastating problem this country has faced in its 73 years after Independence.
Sri Lankan governments have been attempting to resolve problems in the usual way that all ‘democratic’ governments do: Appoint commissions of inquiry and investigations and even presidential commissions to determine what went wrong. Maximum publicity is provided to the progress of commissions on radio, TV and the print media but gradually the pressure is eased till time erases memories of the devastating problem.
The financial and political abyss that President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, his brothers and nephews confidently marched into with their military and civilian advisors was beyond the capabilities of presidential commissions to resolve and they remained in their bunkers until the GotaGoHome boys and girls rallied tens of thousands of protesters, stormed the bastions of power of the Rajapaksas, forcing them to resign and Gota to go home the way of ‘Parangiya Kotte Giya’ (The circumcircuitous way the Portuguese were taken from Colombo Fort to Kotte). Gota went home in a High Security Zone in Colombo by air via the Maldives, Singapore and Thailand.
But the problem remains: Sri Lanka has no money, little food or medicines, no fuel and has to keep borrowing.
Ranil Wickremesinghe was a free and defeated man with no problems to resolve but he seems to relish problems for power.
He volunteered to take on all the terrifying problems of the country left over by the Rajapaksas by volunteering to become the prime minister and then be elected president by politically destitute members of the Rajapaksa party, who are not his fans.
Wickremesinghe has done his job well in negotiating with the IMF and the Western bloc of nations but has kicked into his own goal by cracking down on the GotaGoHome boys and girls who had unwittingly paved the way for his political resurrection.
Wickremesinghe during the past week or so has gone through Westminster Castle and Abbey, Buckingham Palace, Windsor Castle, chatted with King Charles III and been able to present Sri Lanka’s case in a favourable light, reports said.
This week he was in Tokyo with powerful Japanese politicians and in the Japanese Imperial Palace with Emperor Akihito in the vicinity of the Chrysanthemum Throne.
Japan has been our all-weather friend since the San Francisco conference speech of his uncle J.R. Jayewardene who pleaded for Japan at that critical moment when the world was sitting in judgement over Japan’s conduct in the War. The nephew of JR pleading for Lanka’s cause now may have revived poignant memories way back.
Japan has been showering assistance on this country without any strings attached. The Kotte Parliament in a picturesque setting, the Jayawardenapura Hospital, the Administrative Capital of Kotte and the development of the entire region of Colombo East that has now become the best residential area of Colombo are all spin-offs of Japanese munificence.
Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s wooden-headed military mind destroyed that seven-decade-old friendship by boorishly halting the Japanese light rail project which would have eased the traffic congestion in the area. Ranil Wickremesinghe now has the opportunity to undo the damage although he is working for the ‘Pohottuwa’ government.
From Japan, Wickremesinghe went to Manila to chair a meeting of the Asian Development Bank where he called for the support of creditors and stakeholders for Sri Lanka’s economic recovery.
Is Wickremesinghe the solution for Sri Lanka’s economic and political debacle?
There is tremendous opposition to him continuing as the President and there are daily protests demanding his resignation. But indications are that he has no intention of giving up the presidency and intends to carry on for the next two years till the presidential term ends. He has had no qualms in crushing opposition forces rising against him although it is being pointed out that non-violent protests against legal governments are permissible under Sri Lankan law.
The parallels between Ranil Wickremesinghe’s and his uncle JRJ’s careers are striking. JRJ even when he was in his seventies did not have control of his party, the UNP, which he had stood by in all adversities and also put it back on its feet.
Even after the rout of the party in 1970 by the Sirima Bandaranaike-led United Front, Dudley Senanayake continued to be the leader with JRJ trying his utmost to oust him.
At one stage, JRJ declared that he wanted to join Sirima Bandaranaike’s coalition but the left leaders including Samasamjist N.M. Perera and Communist Pieter Keuneman were vehemently against it. N.M. Perera declared: ‘If he comes through the front door, I go out through the back door and if he comes through the backdoor, I go out from the window’.
JRJ tried many tactics to oust Dudley. He even tried to storm Siri Kotha (then located at Kollupitiya) with elephants!
And then Dudley Senanayake passed away plunging the entire nation into grief. The astute JRJ then played his master stroke. His funeral oration at Independence Square was a masterpiece of oratory in democracy and hypocrisy: Goodbye Sweet Prince…May a thousand Devas…..
JRJ took control of the party and in 1977 swept the polls with a five-sixth majority for the party to hold power for 17 years.
Ranil Wickremesinghe still is the leader of the UNP but the vast majority of members ditched him in favour of Sajith Premadasa and Wickremesinghe could not even win a single seat — not even his own. Speculation is that he will try to wean away former UNPers now with Sajith Premadasa and contest the next election as leader of a rejuvenated UNP and win like his uncle did.
Sajith Premadasa had only one month’s time to organise his presidential election campaign against the formidable Gotabaya Rajapaksa. He contested under a new party name with ex-UNPers backing him. He polled a creditable 41.99 percent of the poll against Rajapaksa’s 52.25 per cent. Premadasa is today the sole opposition leader directly opposing both Wickremesinghe and the Rajapaksas and is no lame duck.
Can Wickremesinghe repeat his uncle’s feat. Time will tell.
Growth of Artificial Intelligence and decline in Human Intelligence
A voluminous newspaper supplement in a state-owned newspaper last week aimed at boosting artificial intelligence in Sri Lanka had us wondering about the possible science fiction scenario of the takeover of the former Pearl of the Orient by electronic robots.
A determined effort, it appears, is being made to have robots with artificial intelligence (AI) to help us Lankans in our domestic chores as well as work in factories. Glancing through some of the articles we were impressed at the enthusiasm and optimism expressed which made us conclude that robots functioning on artificial intelligence will grow at an exponential rate.
This accelerated growth of artificial intelligence in Lanka per se was not a matter of concern to us. What concerns us is its rapid growth alongside the rapid decline of human intelligence in this country. It began decades ago and this year accelerated blindly with
open eyes into the chasm of financial bankruptcy and political wilderness.
The scenario we envisage is not the usual sci-fi battle between robots vs humans because the robots have to be fed with instructions by humans into the foreseeable future. Increasingly intelligent robots coming up with solutions with dumb Lankans may not be able to comprehend, is a challenge to those now nurturing artificial intelligence.
Jawaharlal Nehru attended the coronation of Queen Elizabeth in 1952. The Commonwealth was than a small organisation. The Queen became Head of Commonwealth the same year. Till 1947 it was a white man’s club: United Kingdom, Australia, New Zealand and Canada. India and Pakistan became members on becoming independent. Ceylon followed in 1948. In 1957, Ghana became the eighth member.
Government has taken the correct decision for President Droupadi Murmu to represent India at the funeral of the Queen. She will get to know many of her counterparts. Several hundred Heads of State and Government have been invited. Most will be in London by the 18 September. Will President Xi of China and President Putin attend? The funeral is on the 19th.
No country can outdo the United Kingdom in planning and organising ceremonial events. The late Queen’s journey from Buckingham Place to Westminster Hall on 14 September was as memorable as it was spectacular.
The world is running out of monarchies. UK, Japan, followed by Cambodia, Thailand, Brunei, the Malay Kingdoms, Bhutan, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf Kingdoms. The last eight are not democracies.
Has the British monarchy a future? The Queen was widely admired, popular and respected. King Charles III is not endowed with these indispensable qualities. I have met him three or four times. The first time in February 1975 in New Delhi. He was accompanied by Lord Mountbatten. They stayed in New Delhi for two days.
I was then Deputy High Commissioner in London. I came to New Delhi a couple of days before the arrival of Prince Charles and Uncle Dickie. They left Delhi for Kathmandu after two days to attend the coronation of the King of Nepal. By then, Charles was somewhat irritated with Mountbatten.
At Palam airport, Prince Charles took me aside and said, “I would very much like to come again in October for a longer stay. If that is convenient to you, but without Uncle Dickie.”
“Your Royal Highness, you are most welcome.”
King Charles III is 73 years of age. Will he attain the age of his mother? That will certainly prolong the life of Britain’s monarchy.
The death of Queen Elizabeth II, the longest-serving monarch of British royalty, has sparked global fascination and spawned thousands of clickbait reports of the details of her funeral. Americans, who centuries ago rejected monarchy, are seemingly obsessed with the ritualism, bizarrely mourning the demise of an elderly and fabulously wealthy woman who was born into privilege and who died of natural causes at the ripe old age of 96 across the ocean.
Perhaps this is because popular and long-running TV shows about British royalty like “The Crown” have convinced us that we know intimate details about the royals—and worse, they cause us to believe we should care about a family that is a symbolic marker of past imperial grandeur.
But for those who are descended from the subjects of British imperialist conquest, the queen, her ancestors, and her descendants represent the ultimate evil empire.
India, my home country, celebrated its 75th anniversary of independence from British rule this year. Both my parents were born before independence, into a nation still ruled by the British. I heard many tales while growing up of my grandfather’s absences from home as he went “underground,” wanted for seditious activity against the British. After independence in 1947, he was honored for being a “freedom fighter” against the monarchy.
Despite the popularity and critical acclaim of “The Crown” and movies and shows like it, I found a far stronger connection to the new superhero series “Ms. Marvel,” if for no other reason than the fact that it tackles the horrors of partition, a little-known (in the U.S.) legacy of the evil empire.
As Pakistani writer Minna Jaffery-Lindemulder explains in New Lines, “The British changed the borders of India and Pakistan at the eleventh hour in 1947 before declaring both nations independent, leaving the former subjects of the crown confused about where they needed to migrate to ensure their safety.” As a result, 15 million people felt forced to move from one part of the South Asian subcontinent to another, a mass cross-exodus with an estimated death toll ranging from half a million to 2 million.
Today, those contested borders, callously and recklessly drawn in 1947 by British officials acting at the behest of the crown, remain a source of simmering tensions between India and Pakistan that occasionally erupt into full-blown wars.
This is the legacy of British monarchy. The United Kingdom enjoys a hideous distinction in the Guinness Book of World Records, for “most countries  to have gained independence from the same country.”
One could argue that Elizabeth, who was gifted the throne and its title in 1952, did not lead an aggressive empire of conquest and instead presided over an institution that, under her rule, became largely symbolic and ceremonial in nature. And indeed, many do just that, referring to her, for example, as an “exemplar of moral decency.”
Rahul Mahajan, author of Full Spectrum Dominance and The New Crusade, has a different opinion, referring in an interview to Elizabeth as a “morally unremarkable person with a job that involved doing extremely unremarkable things.”
Mahajan explains further, saying that this was “a highly privileged person, given an opportunity to influence world events in some degree, which she had to do nothing to earn, who never did anything particularly remarkable, innovative, or insightful.”
While Elizabeth’s 70 years on the throne were mostly spent overseeing an ostensible unraveling of British Empire in a world less tolerant of occupation, enslavement, and imperial plunder, just a few months into her role as queen, the British violently put down the Mau Mau rebellion in Kenya. According to a New York Times story about how citizens in African nations today have little sympathy for the dead monarch, the squashing of the rebellion “led to the establishment of a vast system of detention camps and the torture, rape, castration and killing of tens of thousands of people.”
Even if Elizabeth was not responsible for directing the horrors, they were carried out in her name. Over the seven decades that she wielded symbolic power, she never once apologized for what was done during her rule in Kenya—or indeed what was done in her family’s name in dozens of other nations in the Global South.
It’s no wonder that Black and Brown people the world over have openly expressed disgust at the collective fawning of such an ugly legacy.
Professor Uju Anya of Carnegie Mellon University, who is Nigerian, is under fire for her frank dismissal of Elizabeth after posting on Twitter that she “heard the chief monarch of a thieving and raping genocidal empire is finally dying. May her pain be excruciating.”
Kehinde Andrews, a Black studies professor at Birmingham City University, wrote on Politico that he cannot relate to his fellow Britons’ desire to mourn Elizabeth, a woman he considered to be “the number one symbol of white supremacy” and a “manifestation of the institutional racism that we have to encounter on a daily basis.”
Elizabeth may have appeared a benign, smiling elder who maintained the propriety expected from a royal leader. But she worked hard to preserve an institution that should have long ago died out. She was handed the throne after her uncle, the duke of Windsor, abdicated in order to marry a twice-divorced American. Both the marriage to a divorcee and the fact that the couple turned out to be Nazi sympathizers marked a low point for the royals.
“The monarchy was in a really good position to fade away with this kind of clowning around,” says Mahajan. But it was Elizabeth who “rescued the popularity of the monarchy.”
Further, Elizabeth quietly preserved the ill-gotten family fortune that she and her descendants benefitted from in a postcolonial world. “One thing she could, and of course should, have done and said something about is the massive royal estate,” says Mahajan. Observers can only estimate the royal family’s worth (Forbes puts the figure at $28 billion), assets that include stolen jewels from former colonies, pricey art investments, and real estate holdings across Britain.
Britain’s new king, Charles III, now inherits the fruits of the evil empire. According to Mahajan, Charles “is apparently very bent on taking his fortune and investing it in such a way as to make himself as rich as possible.” According to the New York Times, “As prince, Charles used tax breaks, offshore accounts and canny real estate investments to turn a sleepy estate into a billion-dollar business.”
The International Consortium of Investigative Journalists in 2017 found that both Elizabeth and Charles were named in the leaked “Paradise Papers,” indicating that they hid their money in havens to avoid paying taxes.
Fleecing taxpayers and living off stolen wealth—monarchy’s original modus operandi appears to be central to Elizabeth’s legacy, one she passes on to her son (who also won’t pay an inheritance tax on the wealth she left him).
The British monarchy, according to Mahajan, “mostly represents a real concession to the idea that some people are just born better and more important than you, and you should look to them.”
Mahajan adds, “It’s a good time for the popularity of this institution to fade away.”
This article was produced by Economy for All, a project of the Independent Media Institute.
Twenty-one years ago, the 9/11 attacks in the US set off a range of social and political changes in Muslim societies. The Middle East was the flashpoint as it was believed that the Al Qaeda ideology was deep-rooted in the political conflict and prevalent religious thought in that part of the globe. In subsequent years, the ‘Arab Spring’ largely failed in leading to a democratic change in the region. Now, the Gulf monarchies are trying to bring about the changes which many expected a democratic process to deliver.
The monetary and political cost of the ‘change’ envisioned and set out by monarchies in the Middle East is low, but its impact seems enormous: it is changing Muslim societies worldwide. Many anticipate that the ongoing moderation or religious reform in Saudi Arabia, and the Abraham Accords between Israel and the UAE will counteract and weaken the radical groups in Muslim societies that have long been thriving on the Gulf states’ financial and political support. Although the claim thus far lacks empirical evidence, the pace and outcome of the ‘change process’ will make its validation easier.
Events and developments in the Middle East influence ideological and political trends in Pakistan. But the latter is also concerned about the rise of the Taliban in Afghanistan, political changes in Iran, and the rise of communal hatred in India. All these and other externalities and the state’s response to them are slowly changing the country’s sociopolitical and ideological outlook. The change, which will take time to become visible, will not only reshape religious thought but also determine the future trends of extremism in society. So far, non-state actors, religious groups, and power elites are trying to understand the changes in the region and will shape their strategies accordingly.
Pakistan’s growing financial dependence on the Gulf region will not only influence its geopolitical and strategic choices, but also the state’s attitude towards the religious groups which play on their close sectarian affinity with Middle Eastern countries, especially Saudi Arabia. The religious reform in Saudi Arabia has brought about a big challenge for the conservative Salafi and Deobandi religious groups in Pakistan, which find it difficult to change their outlook overnight. More than 20 Salafi groups and parties were thriving on the Gulf states’ support, apart from the violent Deobandi sectarian groups which were aligned with them. A few groups are trying to adjust to the changes to keep their financial support from the Gulf countries intact.
However, some resist and try to find alternative foreign funding sources or expand their local support bases. Over a period, the Pakistani state has also changed its approach toward certain militant and radical religious groups that once enjoyed the patronage of state institutions. The state has changed its approach after external pressure, and especially the FATF, led it to review its policies. The banned Jamaatud Dawa (JuD), a major Salafi group in Pakistan with an armed wing, the Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), is undergoing a transformation. This transformation can help in understanding how the changes in the Middle East and the policies of the state institutions together impact radical forces in Pakistan. Right now, three disparate views persist within the organisation.
The first view favours abandoning the militant path and focusing only on educational and preaching activities. Proponents of this view also support Mohammed bin Salman’s policies in Saudi Arabia and the Abraham Accords. There is also a strong opinion within the group for adopting the path of electoral politics. The JuD had participated in the last general election and invested huge resources, but its performance was abysmal. However, the young leadership sees politics as a reasonable safe exit to deflect the pressure from their cadre demanding the restoration of organisational activities.
The view is not popular among the main leadership, but JuD workers and supporters have an appetite for it, as they compare their strengths with the Barelvi Tehreek-i-Labbaik Pakistan that they believe has filled the vacuum which the JuD left behind. Besides these two views, there is also a faction within the group that still insists on jihad, does not want to quit the path of militancy, and is willing to continue its activities without the support of state institutions.
The JuD cadre is confused; they have not only devoted their lives to the group but also brought their families into the organisational fold. Most of them were surviving on the financial support provided by the JuD, but now they are struggling and need immediate engagement. The state has not provided any rehabilitation to these abandoned workers. Now they are an easy target for groups like Islamic State in Khorasan (IS-K). Other banned groups are also facing the same challenge. The Salafists, stigmatised by various violent and nonviolent expressions of fundamentalism, are left with little choice. They have Mohammed bin Salman on one side and IS-K on the other. They can choose between the two, with almost no option for a middle ground.
The Deobandis are fragmented too, as always, but their significant majority, including the violent sectarian groups, still feel in line with the Saudis. The Taliban takeover in Afghanistan has also given them a sense of victory. The Saudis will have an interest in continuing to support them for the sake of countering Iranian influence in the country both on societal and state levels. The state institutions would also have in mind the utility of these outfits for future political scenarios. However, they would not allow the Deobandi madressahs to nurture another generation of the militants that would ultimately hurt the state institutions’ interests.
The Gulf states cannot develop a relationship with the wider civil society in Pakistan because of the latter’s democratic credentials, and they will keep depending on their old allies among the religious parties. It is not certain that the Gulf states will try to impose any change on the religious groups until they serve their purpose. Iran, too, has no interest in abandoning its Shia allies in Pakistan. The religious groups will not change overnight, but the changes in the Middle East will impact them slowly and steadily.