Rise of Xi and the Asian dream

By Ameen Izzadeen
China’s President Xi Jinping is now a virtual leader for life after the Communist Party on Sunday removed the presidential term limits from the constitution. Xi is undoubtedly the most powerful world leader today.
What does Sunday’s landmark event mean to the people of China and the rest of the world? Though the move is certainly not in tune with democratic principles, to the ordinary Chinese people, who do not have much yearning for western-style democracy, Sunday’s historic change could mean development at double speed.
First, it must be made clear that Xi becoming president for life is, by no means, China endorsing dictatorship. Xi cannot be compared with a dictator like Saddam Hussein, who was a law unto himself. In China, the Communist Party regulates politics and Xi will have to abide by party rules and the constitution.
The ultimate aim of politicians is to grab power. But freedom from fear and hunger is the people’s ultimate expectation from politicians. For the people, it does not matter whether a politician given to democratic ideals or an undemocratic ruler fulfils their expectations. The bottom line is, as poet Alexander Pope said, ‘For forms of government, let fools contest, whatever is administered best is best.’
In rich countries such as Switzerland and Singapore, party politics does not play a significant role in people’s lives. People in these countries do not worry about their next meal. Neither do they live in fear, for they see the supremacy of the rule of law in practice. In China, a country known for the rule of law, what people expect is freedom from poverty. China, through its controlled economic liberalization policies, has enabled hundreds of millions of people to free themselves from the poverty trap over the past ten years. Some 20 percent of China’s 1.4 billion people – that is a staggering 280 million people –are in the US$ 40,000+ a year (more than Rs. 6.2 million a year or Rs. 512,000 a month) income bracket. The only other country which has so many people in the US$ 40,000+ income bracket is the United States.
Experts believe if China’s economy grows at a healthy rate of 5-7 percent, 40 percent of China’s population will enter the US$ 40,000+ income bracket in the next 15 years. The achievement could come much faster if the economy grows at more than 7 percent a year. This is what President Xi is targeting – to make China great again by freeing its people from the poverty trap. There are some 2,200 dollar billionaires in the world – of them 568 are in China. The US comes a close second with 518 billionaires. Xi wants to make more and more Chinese people rich and he has a great vision for it.
He believes his giga project — the One-Belt-One-Road Initiative also known as the Belt-and-Road Initiative (BRI) – will catapult China into the sphere of prosperity.
It is with this multitrillion-dollar BRI that China is trying to create a new world economic order. Yes, it is inevitable that the new order will be China-centric, though, through regional cooperation, it could be made Asia-centric.
In October last year, President Xi got his name engraved in the Constitution, thus becoming the third leader to do so after Mao Zedong, the founder of the Communist State in 1949, and Deng Xiaoping, who introduced the socialist market economy.
Addressing the October sessions of the People’s Congress, Xi spelt out his ‘Thoughts on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era’. He outlined specific policies on the BRI, the modernisation of society and the armed forces; and target dates for establishing China’s position in the world. He said the policies were aimed at making China a top innovative nation by 2035 and a nation with global influence by 2050. This Sunday, Xi took a giant stride towards making these goals a reality.
Now that Xi has become a life-long feature in world politics, the rest of the world needs to treat him and his pet BRI project with the seriousness they deserve.
There is much at stake for smaller countries which try to balance their China relations with equally strong relations with the United States, Japan and India – countries which view China’s global ambitions with suspicion. Sri Lanka’s foreign ministry should assess the emerging Xi-led world economic order and take measures to benefit from it. A point to keep in mind: China will step up its assertive diplomacy.
Xi’s BRI project is a boon for Asia. Asian powerhouses such as Japan and India should view China as an opportunity rather than a rival. Together they can chart the course for world peace through greater economic relations.
India, especially, need not get dragged into moves to counter China’s growing global influence. In recent months, India together with the US, Japan and Australia – the so-called Quad — has been mulling over the possibilities of launching a counter BRI. India is building Iran’s Chabahar port as a joint venture and a corridor linking the southern Iranian port with Afghanistan’s iron rich Hajigak area. In addition, India has also invested in a road network connecting India with Myanmar and Thailand in moves seen as countering China’s BRI. Now the Quad plans to revive the former US President Barack Obama’s Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). The Donald Trump administration which withdrew from the TPP is now having second thoughts about it. Obama vowed he would not allow China to dictate the terms of the world economy when he launched the TPP as part of his ‘Pivot to Asia’ strategy to contain China.
Officials from the Quad countries have clarified that this plan was not a “rival” but an “alternative” to the BRI. The project is being given an Indo-Pacific characteristic, highlighting India’s pivotal role.
Although China has extended a cautious welcome to the alternative BRI, the countermove by the Quad has the undercurrents of a growing cold war and will add to world tension. Already Russian President Vladimir Putin – who will also, like Xi, remain president for long years to come – has fired warning shots at the West, boasting about Russia’s one-upmanship in smart weapons. Moreover, Britain’s dispute with Russia over the nerve gas attack on a former Russian double agent and his daughter is also threatening world peace.
China and India were the best of friends before the two countries went to war in 1962 over a border dispute. It was India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru who brought Communist China to the world stage. Nehru, who invited China’s Premier Zhou Enlai to the 1955 Afro-Asian conference in Bandung, was a true Asian. Together they worked out the Panchaseela principles for co-existence. Even before India got independence, Nehru dreamt of Asian unity and in March 1947, he convened the Asian Relations Conference in New Delhi.
But sadly, the right wing Narendra Modi Government has abandoned this Asian dream and is seen to be delighted over the fact that the US is relying on it in its power rivalry with China.
But this policy in the long term will not serve India. This is because China under President Xi is likely to prevail. India needs to revive Nehru’s Asian dream. If India needs to check China’s dominance, then it, together with Japan and Australia, should join China’s BRI project as equal partners. Asia’s economic powerhouses together need to shape the world economic and political order. That’s the way forward for Asia.
(This article first appeared in the Daily Mirror, Sri Lanka)

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Modern nation-state: A blow from Digana

By Ameen Izzadeen
Sri Lanka’s nation-building process, it appears, is a farce and the state-building process a failure. The communal tension in the past ten days, first in Ampara and then in Digana, Kandy, when seen together with the three-decades of separatist war and seven decades of ethnic disharmony between communities, tells us that Sri Lanka is yet to become a modern-nation state.
A nation’s development is assessed not by the number of highrise buildings or flashy cars on the road, but by its people’s collective will to regard humanity as one and rise above differences based on group identities, such as race, religion, caste or ideology. A state reaches the height of civilization when a human being within its boundaries is safe from the actions, words and even thoughts of another human being. Although, even the most liberal states have not reached the idealistically preferred level of civilization, it is progress when states strive for it. On the contrary, it is degeneration, when a state allows or encourages racism, prejudices and communalism.
With Sri Lanka yet to be liberated from dirty communalism, incidents such as those in Ampara and Digana deal a crippling blow to efforts to establish an overarching Sri Lankan identity or “I am a Sri Lankan first” identity.
Defining a nation-state only on the basis of a majority community is archaic, feudal in nature and preposterously inhuman. The modern definition of nation-state is multi-ethnic, multi-cultural and secular. Sri Lanka, since receiving independence in 1948, has not taken serious step towards establishing the modern multi-ethnic nation state. Instead, Sri Lanka’s post-independence leaders have played communal politics — and as a result, the country was plunged into a 30-year separatist war, and, for the past several years, ethnic tension involving Sinhala racist groups and Muslims.
We simply failed to build on the ‘Ceyloneseness’ we wrought at Independence and rise like Singapore, a multi-ethnic nation that has, by practising meritocracy, succeeded in establishing an overarching Singaporean national identity and emerged as an exemplary modern nation-state. Last year, Singapore refused to issue visa to a world famous Muslim preacher, because he had said in a fatwa that it was un-Islamic to greet non-Muslims on their festivals. The government contended that his views promoted religious discord.
While Singapore has discarded ethnic politics, Sri Lankan politicians have adopted racism for short-term petty political gains, while causing long-term damage to the country’s well-being.
Racial prejudice is an acquired attitude. No child born into one community develops prejudices against other communities through instinct. Rather it is the parents, elders, politicians, religious figures, teachers, journalists and now social media bigots who poison innocent minds and make them racists. In other words, it is society at large that makes one a racist. The extent to which a person is racially prejudiced depends on the extent to which the society she or he lives in is unenlightened. If children are brought up in an enlightened environment, especially the home and school environment, they would be less prejudiced. Successive governments’ monumental failure in bringing about an enlightened society through the education system and government policy has nurtured prejudice and racism.
A sociological explanation of prejudice is that it arises from competition over jobs and resources and also from political disagreements. When groups vie with each other over these matters, they often become hostile towards each other. A socio-psychological view of prejudice is that it arises when individuals who experience various kinds of problems become frustrated and tend to blame their troubles on groups that are often disliked in the real world (e.g., racial, ethnic, and religious minorities). These minorities are thus scapegoats for the real sources of the majority’s misfortunes. In Europe, Jews were blamed for the bubonic plague and Germany’s economic recession. (http://open.lib.umn.edu/sociology/chapter/10-3-prejudice/). In Sri Lanka, Muslims are blamed for the low population growth rate of the Sinhalese.
A fair share of the blame should also be placed on the minorities themselves. For ethnic harmony sake, a minority community in a multiethnic society needs to be inclusive, while preserving its cultural and religious identities, without allowing the majority community to develop racial prejudices against it. In this respect, the behaviour of a minute section of the Muslims indeed was provocative, to say the least, when they supported Pakistan while the Sri Lanka cricket team was playing against that country. Such preposterous anti-national behaviour, seen at cricket stadiums and live on television, was condemned by the majority of Muslims, but, given the prejudicial nature of society, the entire Muslim community was stereotyped as anti-national.
Inter-relations between communities need to be built on mutual respect for each other’s culture and aspirations. Racism and prejudice are not peculiar to one community. They cut across all socio-economic barriers. Stereotyping the ‘other’ is part of prejudice. So are efforts to assume a sense of superiority based on caste, race or religion.
In a multiethnic society highly steeped in prejudice, majoritarianism promotes the view that minorities need to be eliminated or expelled. This is happening in Myanmar where the Rohingya minority is being ethnically cleansed.
In a multicultural society that is partially prejudiced, majoritarianism represents the view that minorities can co-exist but whatever rights and privileges they enjoy are at the pleasure of the majority. This is what Narendra Modi’s India is turning out to be. Under his government, India’s Muslims feel they are second class citizens.
In an enlightened multiethnic society, majoritarianism epitomizes a caring older brother willing to share the parental property equally with his younger brothers. Examples are Singapore, where the president is a hijab-wearing Muslim woman, and several Western nations, including the United Kingdom where a Muslim with a migrant background can become London’s mayor and a national cricket team captain.
In Sri Lanka, majoritarianism manifests in all these forms. While the ethnic-cleansing majoritarianism is responsible for the Aluthgama, Gingtota, Ampara and Kandy mob attacks, the caring-brother-type majoritarianism manifested in the statements made by cricketing greats Sanath Jayasuriya, Mahela Jayawardena and Kumar Sangakkara and in the powerful speech made by Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna leader Anura Kumara Dissanayake in parliament this week.
But the responsibility to make Sri Lanka an enlightened society rests not with civil society alone. The Government should have a commitment towards nation-building – the creation of an all-powerful Sri Lankan identity. Paying mere lip service to reconciliation and having ministries and offices for national unity and reconciliation would not help the nation-building process. Politicians should become statesman or stateswomen with vision.
The mob attacks on Muslim properties and mosques rekindle the ugly memories of the 1983 pogrom against the Tamils. Disregarding the pleas of the enlightened segment of society, the then President J.R. Jayewardene deliberately delayed the imposition of an islandwide curfew to teach the Tamils a lesson they would not forget.
That this week’s attacks continued despite a curfew and the declaration of emergency is a serious indictment on the Government’s inaction and a breakdown of law and order. There could even be a political conspiracy behind the race riots, given the undercurrents of the 2020 presidential race. Such ugly incidents — taking place in the 21st century in a country blessed by the world’s four main religions — shows the depth of darkness that we are in. Are we a failed state, incapable of co-existence and nation-building?
(This article first appeared in the Daily Mirror, Sri Lanka)

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Syria: The stories the corporate media do not tell

This article first appeared in the Daily Mirror, Sri Lanka
By Ameen Izzadeen
It is good journalism when the media become the voice of the voiceless, the watchdog and the fifth estate. Often shoddy journalism is referred to as bad journalism. There is another type of journalism – the ugly or dirty journalism, where the media play the role of a hit man, a mercenary promoting someone else’s agenda.
Suddenly ugly journalism is in all force to tell the world that what is happening in Syria’s Ghouta, the land of Eden turned hell, is genocide. The corporate media raising the alarm and arousing public protests worldwide to put pressure on world leaders to act fast to save the trapped civilians of Ghouta, some may say, is perfectly in order. But why now? Why this sudden awakening? Why this selective alarm?
Since the Syrian civil war broke out in 2011, Ghouta, which is less than an hour’s drive from Damascus, has been under the iron rule of the so-called Islamic rebels, whom the corporate media, working for their clients in the White House and lofty palaces in the Arabian Gulf region, are trying to project as moderate rebels opposed to tyrant Bashar al-Assad. The Western media were largely silent when the rebels linked to al-Qaeda and the Islamic State (ISIS) terrorised the civilians of Ghouta, just as the ISIS did in Iraq’s Mosul and other places. These rebels used Ghouta as a launching pad to shell highly populated Damascus and carry out terrorist attacks. These attacks killed civilians, including children. In April last year, 68 children were among some 130 people killed when a rebel car bomb hit a convoy of civilians leaving Aleppo, following a safe-passage arrangement between the Syrian Government and the rebels. But their deaths drew little condemnation.
Even now the happenings in Ghouta come to us through the prism of the Western media, which rely on material supplied by rebels who are known to be producing fake videos to evoke the international community’s response against the Syrian regime. According to a Russia Today report, photographs taken in Gaza and Mosul were being liberally circulated in the social media as being those from Ghouta. It is alleged that the Syrian forces were using chlorine bombs to kill civilians. Independent investigations show that both the regime and the rebels have used chemical weapons. The Western media are often fed by an organisation called the White Helmets, which is working largely in collaboration with various rebel groups. This organisation, according to news sites, which carry reports that corporate media would not show or publish, is allegedly controlled by Western intelligence outfits to give credibility to western – also rebel – propaganda against the Syrian regime.
We do not deny there is suffering in Ghouta. We insist that the Syrian war should be halted immediately so that the Syrian people can lead a peaceful life as they did before February 2011.
But this suffering is as much due to rebel atrocities as it is to the Syrian government’s attacks. Following last Saturday’s United Nations-backed truce in Ghouta, Russia announced a safe corridor for the trapped civilians to leave the enclave. But reports claim that the rebels were using the civilians as human shields and preventing them from leaving. The LTTE did this in Sri Lanka, the Islamic State in Iraq and now Syrian rebels in Ghouta, where so far some 600 civilians including children have perished in three weeks of clashes between the rebels and the Syrian government troops.
When bombs rained on Mosul, Iraq, some 4,000 civilians, including children, died; hundreds of them were buried alive under rubble when US and Iraqi war planes unleashed their massive fire power on urban population centres. Corporate media carried no disturbing television footage with a warning to viewers. Despite the United Nations raising concerns over civilian safety, the destruction of Mosul was justified on the basis that ISIS needed to be eliminated. There was no pressure on Iraq and the United States to abandon the campaign against ISIS.
Saudi Arabia drew only mild criticism when charity organisations in November last year warned that a million children will die in Yemen due to the Saudi blockade on Yemen’s rebel-held areas.
Ghouta is no different from Mosul or Yemen. The people there should be liberated. Their suffering should end. But the responsibility of ending this suffering is largely on those who started the war. The war was not Assad’s doing. Syria was relatively peaceful before all hell broke loose. Against the backdrop of Arab-spring-led regime changes in the Middle East, Tens of thousands of foreign fighters, helped by Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and their Western allies, penetrated Syria to incite a rebellion against Assad.
If people’s power uprisings were responsible for the regime changes in Tunisia and Egypt, it was totally a different scenario in Libya. Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the UAE and their Western allies engineered an armed rebellion against Muammar Gaddafi. Foreign mercenaries were airdropped to train and guide anti-Gaddafi rebels mainly in Benghazi, while the Nato carried out air attacks on Libya.
The formula executed with clinical precision succeeded in overthrowing Gaddafi. The fathers of the formula then turned their attention towards Syria, assuming that what worked for them in Libya would work for them in Syria. The war mongers partnered with al Qaeda and ISIS and wanted a regime change in Syria because Assad had resisted their plan to build a pipeline across Syria to send Qatari and Saudi gas via Turkey to Europe, where Russia controlled more than 60 percent of the gas market.
These countries were also apprehensive of the rising power of the so-called Iranian-led Shiite Crescent which included Iran, Iraq, Syria and parts of Lebanon, not to mention the rise of Shiite political forces in Bahrain, Yemen, and the eastern region of Saudi Arabia. By setting up a friendly regime in Syria, the war party thought, they could quash Iran’s regional ambitions.
In addition, Israel also wanted Assad ousted and a regime loyal to the West installed so that the new rulers of Syria could hand over the Golan Heights to Israel. There is oil in Golan Heights. Israeli and US companies have plans to commercially exploit this oil. But Israel is prohibited from selling the Golan oil in the international market because under international law, an occupying nation cannot profit from resources of an occupied area. So they all wanted Assad ousted.
But the direct involvement of Russia, which has a naval base in Syria, in the Syrian conflict since 2015 changed the equation in favour of Assad. In the meantime, regular terror attacks in Europe forced the United States and European nations to declare an all-out war against ISIS.
Assad is a tyrant because the corporate media continue to describe him so. He may be or maybe not. But he has not spurned international peace moves, especially the one now being spearheaded by Russia. At the initial stages of the conflict, Assad was even willing to hold multi-party elections to find a speedy solution to the crisis. But peace talks have so far failed because of the insistence of the rebels and their sponsors that Assad must go. The solution to the crisis can only be found with Assad as a partner.

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France and Sri Lanka: The dangers of cohab politics

By Ameen Izzadeen
Sri Lanka’s political crisis following the February 10 local polls election setback for the ruling coalition has brought to surface the vagaries of political cohabitation peculiar to the presidential cum parliamentary governments or hybrid governments.
Political cohabitation is a form of governmental arrangement between the executive president and a rival party prime minister. The French call this arrangement La cohabitation — and it is in France that cohabitation became a political concept after the Fifth Republican Constitution was adopted. Cohabitation is quite contrast to co-rule or a political system called diarchy where two rulers exercise equal power or play well defined and agreed upon roles. Cohabitation is also different from constitutionally defined power-sharing arrangements as seen in the Northern Ireland power sharing deal where the Protestant first minister and the Catholic Deputy First Minister wield equal powers. In countries such as Iraq and Lebanon, power sharing is exercised on ethnic basis, with the presidency, the premiership and the post of Speaker being distributed among leaders of different ethnic groups.
In the absence of clear constitutional provisions, cohabitation governments are usually associated with political instability. This is because the president and the prime minister are often engaged in a political cold war to undermine each other. Often, cohabitation governments crumble under political manipulations, even if constitutional safeguards exist to check moves by the President or the Prime Minister to weaken each other.
In Sri Lanka, cohabitation became a political reality for the first time in 2001, when the then President Chandrika Kumaratunga dissolved parliament and called for general elections, only to see her rival Ranil Wickremesinghe’s United National Party polling 45.62 percent of the registered votes and winning the elections. Kumaratunga grudgingly swore in Wickremesinghe as prime minister. But the President felt uncomfortable sitting with her rival party leader and ministers at Cabinet meetings which she presided as the head of the Cabinet. Being a leader of a political party and her executive powers pruned by the prime ministerial rule, Kumaratunga planned to dissolve the Government at the very first opportune moment that came her way.
Unlike in France, where the Prime Minister is the head of government and as powerful as the president, in Sri Lanka, the then prime minister was, constitutionally speaking, a virtual Mr. Nothing. The only constitutional mechanism at the disposal of the then Prime Minister Wicrkremesinghe was parliament’s control of finances to cut off funds to the President. But the President had the power to dissolve parliament after parliament completed one year. Yet by getting the Speaker to entertain a petition to impeach the president, the premier could have prevented the president from dissolving parliament. Wickeremsinghe, however, rejected his party seniors’ advice to impeach the president, probably because he was too much of a gentleman politician or he believed if a general election was held, his party could win.
In retrospect it appeared that Kumaratunga had outfoxed Wickremesinghe. She dissolved parliament, disregarding a pledge she gave in writing to the Speaker that she would not dissolve parliament as long as the Prime Minister commanded the confidence of the majority in the house. This was power politics of Machiavellian type.
The constitutional provision with regard to the dissolution of parliament underwent a progressive change with the passage of the 19th Amendment in April 2015. Under this amendment, the President can dissolve parliament only after parliament completes four years and six months of its five year term. The amendment, among other things, also curtails the president’s power to remove the prime minister.
Notwithstanding the 19th Amendment’s checks on the presidential powers, President Maithripala Sirisena appears to take an upper hand in the present crisis engulfing the cohabitation government, which, unlike in France, is also a coalition government, sometimes called a national unity government by two rival parties which coexist despite regular conflicts. The fact that the prime minister’s party lacks a clear majority in parliament and that its public standing has taken a beating due to its failure to fulfill its campaign pledge to bring in good governance has enabled the president to call the shots and shoot down proposals from the prime minister’s party – proposals which if implemented could make the premier popular.
Sri Lanka’s cohabitation politics smacks of political skullduggery. Our politicians are even averse to bipartisanship for a national cause such as finding a solution to the national question. The collapse of the 2011 Liam Fox agreement between Kumaratunga and Wickremesinghe and the 2006 memorandum of understanding between the United People’s Freedom Alliance and the United National Party only confirm that our politicians give more priority to party politics than to national causes.
The recent events probably indicate that President Sirisena also awaits the Kumaratunga moment to stab Wickremesinghe in the back, though it was Wickremesinghe’s party that catapulted him to the president’s office. This is nothing uncommon in cohabitation politics. It happens even in France which tried out the first cohabitation government in 1986 with Socialist President Francois Mitterrand as president and the right wing Republican Party leader Jacques Chirac as prime minister. Mitterrand kept the portfolios of foreign, defence, nuclear strategy and European Union affairs while Chirac took charge of the economy and domestic affairs. In this arrangement, Mitterrand often interfered when the government was in a difficult situation. As a result, the prime minister took all the flak and became unpopular while the president’s star was on the ascent. Well, in Sri Lanka, too, this is happening. The SAITM issue and the controversy surrounding a brigadier attached to Sri Lanka’s High Commission in London are cases in point, where the UNP is seen as the villain and the president the trouble shooter and patriot.
France’s first cohabitation experiment lasted only two years. Mitterrand dissolved the government in 1988 and his party won the subsequent presidential and assembly elections. France also had cohabitation governments in 1993 and 1997. Of these cohab governments, the most acrimonious was the 1997 arrangement where Chirac was the president and the socialist politician Lionel Jospin was prime minister. Chirac alluded to the period as ‘political paralysis’.
The French experience shows, that after every cohab government, the president’s party wins the next election. In Sri Lanka, however, President Sirisena’s opportunity has been usurped by the Joint Opposition’s de facto leader and former president Mahinda Rajapaksa. Only Sirisean is to be blamed for this state of affairs, because he failed to take effective control of his party and crack the whip on dissidents when he was seen to be powerful. If he had done that, he could have by now become a formidable candidate for the 2020 presidential election, with the cohab government’s prime minister taking the blame for failures.
In this regard, the premiership appears to be disadvantageous to Wickremesinghe, unless he believes that holding on to the post will enable him to execute a well-thought-out plan to outfox his rivals. But the issue is his rivals also have big plans for 2020 polls.
(This article first appeared in the Daily Mirror, Sri Lanka)

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Ranil and Rajapaksa: The difference is how they play the power game

By Ameen Izzadeen
The just ended local council elections remind students of politics of an age-old adage: Politics is a continuous and ruthless struggle for power. Those who understand this often grab political power and stay on in power. Even if they lose, they continue their struggle to undermine the government with the intention of overthrowing it as fast as possible.
Politics is not for gentlemen or gentlewomen. Nor is it divine, for moral principles to govern it. It is simply dirty and therefore, one has to be animalistic to survive in politics, which is characterised by eternal vigilance, mutual suspicion, perpetual competitions, cold blooded conflicts, skullduggery, backstabbing, intimidation, assassinations and countermoves.
Man’s pursuit for power only ceases at death, Thomas Hobbes, one of the early proponents of a political power theory, said, echoing what Niccolo Machiavelli said in the medieval era and Kautilya said in ancient India. In Prince, Machiavelli says that with so many people in politics immorally disposed, good men in politics often bring down upon themselves their own destruction. In other words, a ruler who wishes to maintain power should not always be good.
In Sri Lanka’s political laboratory, Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna de facto leader Mahinda Rajapaksa is an example of a politician in pursuit of endless power, while United National Party leader Ranil Wickremesinghe appears as a politician being pulled by his commitment to democratic aspirations on the one hand and the requirements of power politics, on the other. In this confusion, he seems to give more weight to political idealism than to political realism. This explains why Wickremesinghe is often caught by surprise in many an election defeat. If only he had been a political animal in the caliber of his opponent, he could have prevented the dissolution of his government of 2001-2003 and would not have lost the all-important presidential race in 2005.
Premier Wickremesinghe has proved his capability as an abled party leader. But if he can extend similar skills and strategies, with which he protects his party leadership, to the national level politics, he can certainly emerge as a winning candidate.
In 2005, when Wickremesinghe lost the presidential race to Rajapaksa, a disappointed journalistic colleague, who voted for the UNP, said of the UNP leader: “A man who had power and did not know how to protect that power, does not deserve to be returned to power.” There is much wisdom in his quotable quote. Political power is just like beauty. Those who are not beautiful try to become beautiful, while those who are beautiful protect it and enhance it. They become alarmed even when a negligible black spot or a tiny wart appears on the skin. Similarly those who wield power must go to any extent to retain, protect and enhance that power, while those who are not in power must resort to every trick in the book to capture power.
In this game of throne, the one who is more adept at deception prevails.
Politics is also a game of eternal vigilance. In the movie ‘Enter the Dragon’, Bruce Lee advises his young student that even when you bow to your opponent before the contest, do not take your eyes off him. Power politics requires politicians to spy on their opponents and know their next move.
The behind-the-scenes efforts of the Democratic Party in the United States to link President Donald Trump with a porn star and Russia show that even in the so-called full-fledged democracies, politicians make use of every opportunity to undermine their rivals. Compare this with the UNP’s missed opportunities such as the allegation that the Rajapaksa team paid the LTTE millions to win the 2005 elections. Even now the cases pertaining to the killings of Sunday Leader Editor Lasantha Wickremetunga and Sri Lanka rugby player Wasim Thajudeen, the disappearance of cartoonist Pradeep Ekneligoda and the MiG deal could break the spine of the opposition if they could be expedited. The unusually slow progress of these cases gives the impression that Wickremesinghe is protecting his very opponents. This is against real politics rules. On the contrary, his political opponents, if given a half chance, will stab him in the back. This is real politics. Politics is not for crybabies to complain after the defeat that they lost because their opponents resorted to a game of deception.
Not only has the UNP failed to expose the previous regime’s alleged misdeeds, but it has also allowed its opponents to define and defame its leader in whatever way and harmful manner. As a result of this failure on the part of the UNP, the Rajapaksa camp plays victim, with politicians corrupt to the core making statements about corruption, as though they are the paragons of virtue. After all, political charlatans want ordinary people to believe that they have become victims of a witch-hunt.
Power, like beauty, needs to be displayed, too. The ordinary people, who vote politicians into power, usually would like to see power in play. Power is associated with machismo. Britain’s Margaret Thatcher declared war against Argentina. The United States’ former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton bombed Libya. Barack Obama, though portrayed as anti-war, continued the war in Iraq and Afghanistan to send the message to the ordinary Americans that the leader they have elected will not hesitate to use all measures necessary to defend them. This was why Trump dropped the mother of all bombs on Afghanistan. This was why French President Emmanuel Macron this week issued a warning that France would attack Syrian forces if he found proof that the Syrian regime has used chemical weapons.
Sri Lanka’s separatist war provided ample opportunity for Rajapaksa to show his machismo. On the contrary, Wickremesinghe came to power in 2001 on the platform of peace and tried to appease the international community rather than his own voter base where any concession to the separatists was seen as treachery.
If he and his party are keen to capture power in 2020, they need to realize that there are votes in rhetoric pregnant with political machismo in defence of the country’s territorial integrity, the Sinhala race and Buddhism. Such machismo also needs to be displayed against politically motivated strikes by state-sector doctors and public servants. Disinclination towards using state power is a sign of weakness that does not win votes. After all, democracy does not mean passivity.
The ugly media also play a dirty role in this whole dirty game of power politics. Although media freedom is expected to be exercised with responsibility, we saw media groups bashing the politicians whom they love to hate; this is not media freedom. Some journalists under the guise of exercising media freedom or carrying out investigative journalism lie for their masters. These media proved they could portray a good candidate as bad and vice versa. If a media group is taking sides, it has the duty to tell its readers, viewers or listeners that it is partial towards a particular candidate.
Power politics is not a holy affair. It involves manipulations, planning, deception, lies and all sorts of sordid things. In a level political field where everyone lies and resorts to deception, the one who has mastered the art of deception wins. The bottom line is the masses are gullible.
But remember real politics also promotes the judicious use of idealistic goals, provided it can win votes to capture or retain power.
(This article first appeared in the Daily Mirror, Sri Lanka)

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Whither independence without its spirit?

By Ameen Izzadeen
Freedom: What a great idea it is! As we celebrated this Sunday Sri Lanka’s 70th freedom day, it is relevant to ask how free we are and what freedom meant to us then and today.
Seventy years ago, when the Union Jack was brought down and the magnificent Lion flag was hoisted at Independence Square, the spirit of freedom came alive in the country’s collective psyche. However, between then and now, the spirit of freedom was lost and we remain a bonded nation once again – bonded to ethnic politics, casteism, religious bigotry and, of course, greed that makes us selfish, corrupt and, some of our politicians, corrupt to the core.
Freedom is defined in a spiritual sense also and it is a matter for the ascetics and the spiritually enlightened to elucidate what freedom is about in a spiritual sense. Yet, a modicum of spiritual freedom could have done marvels for this country. It could have freed us from racist politics and spared us of the 30-year agony of a separatist war and many ethnic riots. If only we had defined freedom from a moralistic perspective also, we would not have fallen into the hell hole of corruption that has retarded our progress.
However, in this post-independence gloomy picture, a few bright spots also could be seen. Certainly, Sri Lanka’s activism during the early post-independence days in the global arena was such one bright spot reflective of its quest for international recognition as an independent state. We did work hard to make our presence felt in the international arena to show we were independent in the face of scorn heaped on us by the Soviet Union. In the core of the Soviet scorn was the fact that the Queen of England was still our sovereign and that we had signed a defence pact with Britain. It took some seven years for us to gain membership in the United Nations following a quid-pro-quo deal between the United States and the Soviet Union.
Perhaps the best display of our spirit of independence was seen in our commitment to Afro-Asian solidarity and our support for freedom struggles wherever they existed.
Sri Lanka, together with like-minded states such as India, Indonesia, Egypt, and also China, was part of a global movement that tried to set up a just international order. The newly independent nations were so united that they helped one another in achieving social and economic progress. They displayed determination and dedication, honesty and hard work, to create a world free of colonialism in all its forms. They were so firm in their resolve that they called for the redrafting of the UN Charter and international treaties, pointing out that they were not parties to these agreements when they were adopted.
At the deliberations for a new treaty on the Law of the Sea and talks at the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD), the newly independent states had their say and sometimes, their way. For instance, when the Law of the Sea Convention was being deliberated, the United States held the view that any nation should be able to exploit the resources of the international seabed. Sensing that such a proposal would give an unfair advantage to technologically advanced nations, the newly independent nations proposed the setting up of the International Seabed Authority, which will be the custodian of the international seabed and its resources for the benefit of all nations. Sri Lanka led by Shirley Amerasinghe, one of its all-time best diplomats, played a pivotal role in the drafting of the Convention, which has been ratified by all maritime states with the solitary exception of the United States.
At UNCTAD talks, Sri Lanka led by its world renowned economist Gamani Corea, who went on to become the Secretary General of the UNCTAD, succeeded in establishing global mechanisms to ensure fair prices in the world market for the commodities of the newly independent states, though such safeguards were eventually to disappear in view of trade liberalization efforts in accordance with the provisions of the General Agreement on Trade and Tariff (GATT) first and later the World Trade Organisation.
Moreover, little Sri Lanka played a peacemaker role in the conflict in Congo, the Suez war, the Soviet invasions of Hungary and Czechoslovakia and the Sino-India war.
All this was long before the spirit of our independence lost its sheen.
Coinciding with the hyper activism of the newly independent states, was the development of a body of economics theories that condemned the skewed world order which allowed developed nations – or the old colonial states — to continuously exploit the new sates.
Significant among them was the dependence theory expounded by Andre Gunder Frank, a German intellectual who was ostracised by the capitalist world. His was a theory, which alerted the developing nations to the reality that they were still under the yoke of colonialism or neo-colonialism though they had gained independence.
In his book ‘The development of underdevelopment’, Frank rejected the idea that underdevelopment stems from an individual country’s isolation from the larger world and due to the influence of more traditional societies. On the contrary, he said underdevelopment resulted from the unequal distribution of resources and exploitation of the less developed and emerging countries by the more developed countries through the so-called “metropolis-satellite relations” theory or the core-periphery relations theory. At the global level, the periphery constitutes the exploited while the core represents the exploiter. He tried to change the system where the periphery at its own expense enriches the core.
Though Frank’s theory has been debunked by the ultra-liberals and conceited capitalists, who mistakenly think they have won the ideological battle with the socialists, it became a rallying cry for the developing nations to resist the exploitation of their resources by rich nations. Many independent nations from the 1950s to 1970s adopted economic protectionism and launched ambitious drives to make their countries self-sufficient in their bid to achieve economic freedom.
But seventy years on, freedom from servility from an economic point of view still remains elusive. We are more and more dependent on aid and loans from developed countries and international financial agencies. The increasing debt burden and the dependence on more debt to repay debts and undertake development work have made developing nations once again dependent nations. In most cases, what is at stake is a country’s sovereignty itself. Aid- or loan-dependent nations have little freedom to take independent decisions at the United Nations or other international forums.
For a few million dollars, the developing nations are compelled to sacrifice the spirit of independence with which they, from the 1950s to late 1970s, gelled themselves together in Afro-Asian camaraderie and later under the banner of non-alignment. These countries which were once under the yoke of colonialism have diluted their commitment to freedom struggles, especially with regard to the Palestinian crisis.
To be called ourselves independent, we need to achieve freedom from want and freedom from fear. We need to give a moral interpretation to freedom and independence to free ourselves from the clutches of corruption. Unfortunately, Sri Lanka has seen several false dawns: The last one being the end of war in 2009.
(This article first appeared in the Daily Mirror, Sri Lanka)

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If the US and Turkey clash, gates of hell may open further in Middle East

By Ameen Izzadeen
The tension between the United States and Turkey strangely did not find mention in Donald Trump’s first State of the Union address on Tuesday, though the events on the ground are as worrisome as the North Korean missile-and-nuclear issue.
As emotions run high in Turkey, the question that looms is: Will there be a war between the United States and Turkey?
Both the US and Turkey are founder members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (Nato). The war of words in recent weeks between the US, a world power, and Turkey, a rising regional power, has stoked fears of yet another gate of hell being opened in the Middle Eastern, where virtually every country is either involved in a war or in a state or war preparedness.
Relations between the US and Turkey have been under strain since the United States, some three years ago, allied with Syria’s Kurdish rebels, whom Ankara has branded terrorists. Washington found Kurds as natural allies in its ‘delayed’ fight against the ISIS. The emphasis on the word ‘delayed’ is because the US and its allies such as Saudi Arabia were initially reluctant to take on the ISIS while the terror outfit was making rapid territorial gains in the war against Syrian government troops.
It was only after Russia’s entry into the Syrian civil war in September 2015 that the US launched a serious campaign against the ISIS in Syria and Iraq, in the backdrop of rising world opinion against ISIS. In both countries, the Kurds were US allies.
Turkey, which has been fighting a Kurdish separatist rebellion for the past four decades, was alarmed over the growing military relationship between the US and the Kurds. The Kurds form one fifth of Turkey’s population. The Turkish separatist group, the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), maintains close ideological and military links with the Syrian Kurdish group, YPG, which the US has been arming, training and protecting.
For Turkey, the redline came when the US last month set up Kurdish safe zones in Syria, ostensibly as a strategic measure to keep the ISIS on the run. But Turkey, sensing that the US move could be a step towards creating an independent Kurdish state, sent troops to Afrin, a US-protected Kurdish safe zone in Syria’s north.
But it is here that the problem really started between the two Nato allies. Last week, President Trump urged Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to halt the military operation, codenamed Operation Olive Branch. Trump warned against actions that “could risk conflict between Turkish and American forces.”
Further east from Afrin, the United States maintains some 2,000 troops in the Syrian Kurdish enclave of Manbij. Turkey, which has deployed some 13,000 troops in Syria, wants to extend the campaign to Manbij – a move that could provoke US counteraction.
According to a White House statement, Trump phoned Erdogan to tell him that the Turkish operation “risks undercutting our shared goals in Syria”. But such warnings had no bearing on the Turks, who see any attempt at creating an independent Kurdish state anywhere in the region as an existential threat. For Turks, the Kurdish question evokes memories of their War of Independence in 1920.
Turkey’s war of independence had its origins in attempts by the victorious allied forces to set up an independent Kurdish state from the territory of the defeated Ottoman empire. In terms of the 1920 Treaty of Sèvres, a referendum was to be held in the Kurdish region for an independent Kurdish state. The Ottoman emperor concurred, but the Turks opposed it. Military chief Mustafa Kemal Ataturk who had set up a rival government in Ankara declared that, if the Allies wanted to scissor up the Anatolian Peninsula, then they’d have to fight to do it. The war with the Allies went on for two years and ended in victory for Turkey. The Ottoman government was overthrown and the republic was proclaimed.
But since then, the Kurds have remained a minority in Turkey, Iraq, Syria, Iran and Armenia, and they have been dreaming of a separate state. The closest they came to a separate state was when, in September last year, Iraq’s Kurds held a referendum for secession, only to suppress the victory in the face of military threats from Iraq’s central government. The Kurds in Iraq, however, enjoy a good measure of autonomy with their own parliament and president.
Since Erdogan’s rise to power in Turkey more than a decade ago, the country has been dreaming the Ottoman dream of becoming a regional power. Erdogan came to Qatar’s rescue last year, when Saudi Arabia and its Arab allies laid an economic siege on the tiny but rich Gulf state.
The war in Syria is so complicated that allies turn enemies and vice versa overnight. Turkey is no friend of Syrian President Bashar al Assad, who is also fighting the Kurds. But Assad has opposed the Turkey’s military adventure in Syria. All are, however, supposedly united in their war against the ISIS. But in Syria, ISIS and al Qaeda take many forms. Some, with the sobriquet ‘moderates’, are allied with the US troops and are armed and funded by one Gulf state or another.
There were no permanent allies or friends in the Syrian conflict. Every nation involved in the conflict tries to achieve its own national interest. Russia, for instance, at one point was supportive of the PKK when Turkish-Russia relations suffered a nosedive after Turkey shot down a Russian war plane in November 2015. But the following year, Turkey became Russia’s ally with President Erdogan accusing the US of having a hand in the failed military coup in August 2016. Since then, Turkey has supported efforts by Russia to find a solution to the Syrian crisis, much to the chagrin of the US. Turkey has also shown interest in China’s Belt and Road Initiative.
Relations between the US and Turkey took a further beating when Turkey arrested a US embassy staff member and the US refused to accede to Turkey’s request for the extradition of a popular Turkish scholar and religious leader, whom Ankara has accused of orchestrating the 2016 coup.
However, in this US-Turkey eyeball-to-eyeball game, the US has apparently blinked. But a victory for Turkey is wishful thinking. For the past three years, the Syrian Kurds, with the US military help, have been running a separate state of sorts in areas under their control. But they are deeply frustrated with the US, for it has abandoned the Kurds in the face of the Turkish offensive on Afrin.
The US behaviour raises a question of trust: Help is there as long as it serves the US interest. This is a key lesson in realpolitik.
Well, the ultimate winners in this game will be Assad and Russian President Vladimir Putin. They can’t be happier at the prospect of two Nato allies in combat. The ultimate losers, as usual, will be the people. More wars mean, more civilian casualties and displacements.
(This article first appeared in the Daily Mirror, Sri Lanka)

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