Mahinda Pathirana

Remarks by Prof Rajiva Wijesinha at the launch, August 26th 2011

I am honoured to have been asked to speak today at the launch of this book written by a colleague at Sabaragamuwa University. It is an inadequacy in our university system that few academics feel the need to write and share their knowledge with the world. In the Faculty of Social Sciences at Sabaragamuwa we did quite well on this, and I am happy to see here Manoj Ariyaratne and Saman Handaragama and Sunil Senevi who have written so well, in addition to Mahinda Pathirana, whose fourth book this is.

I should note however that I have some points of disagreement with Mahinda as to the content. In the first place I object to his dismissive use of the term Neo-Liberalism – just as I was disappointed when Sunil Senevi spoke of the dichotomy between Liberal Capitalism and Marxism, as though these were the only two political philosophies that obtained. This is to ignore the importance of Liberalism, the most apt philosophy for today’ world but one which is sadly ignored in Sri Lanka – perhaps in part because the Liberal Party is not very effective in propagating its philosophy. Even His Excellency referred in Parliament yesterday to the gamut of political ideas represented in Parliament, ranging from Liberal to Progressive, whereas Liberalism – as opposed to what is termed Neo-Liberalism – is the most progressive doctrine there is, since it promotes development as well as equity.

Unfortunately in Sri Lanka, as a facet perhaps of the period in which we got our independence, we know only of Capitalism and Communism. Those were the days of the Cold War, and confrontational politics. When Mr Bandaranaike started the Sri Lanka Freedom Party, it was to follow the Middle Way between these two extremes but sadly, perhaps because he and his successor were pushed leftward by the forces of the right that wanted to make them ineffective, the SLFP ended up advocating Statist Socialism, with what seemed essential coalitions with Marxists.

And then when, following an extreme version of this in the seventies, there was a change, we had only the unbridled capitalism, the cronyism, of the Jayewardene years. It took many years before we reached the consensus that we now have, an understanding that statist socialism will not work if we are to have development, and that the engine of growth must be private enterprise; but also that, left to itself, this will lead to marginalization of the worst off, and it must be accompanied by strong social policies to promote equal opportunities. This balance for instance is what the Chairman of the University Grants Commission, in line with the policies developed by the dynamic Minister of Higher Education and his immensely innovative Secretary, is trying to achieve through University Reform – more opportunities for higher education through harnessing the energies of the private sector and creating institutions from which those now shut out can benefit, while at the same time preserving and expanding free places through the state system as well as through scholarships to private institutions. We have to remember after all that, in guarding free education, we have to make sure that the education that is provided is of a high standard and takes modern developments into account to ensure excellence.

Though this is recognized, and the present government provides a practical and effective example of liberalism – which the government of President Kumaratunga also aimed at, though not so effectively given its relative neglect of rural areas – the underlying philosophy is not emphasized, and instead we still have reassertions of the old polarizing dichotomies. Thus the great liberal philosopher of the seventies, John Rawls, is hardly heard of, and his simple enunciation of liberal thinking, the maxi-min principle, the need to devote one’s greatest efforts to the welfare of the worst off, is unknown.

But I cannot blame Mahinda Pathirana or Sunil Senevi for missing out on this, for they belong to a generation that was brought up on the myths of the Cold War. And so too I cannot blame Mahinda for the sharp critique of Western policy and practices he engages in throughout this book, even though I believe it is exaggerated and does not give credit to the positive aspects of Western actions.

For in looking through the book I was struck too by how common such a critique is, how many young idealists in the non-Western world deplore what they see as the destructive partisan approach of the West. Though nothing excuses terrorism, and we need to deal with it firmly, as I have often said with regard to our own situation too, we need to try to understand the causes of terrorism, and what makes often idealistic youngsters turn to destructive violence. And in looking at books like this one, we need to understand why intellectually bright youngsters, while not turning to violence, are so bitterly critical of what they see as unfair and selfish actions by the West. As T S Eliot put it, they have a vision of the West which the West hardly understands – but there are reasons for this which the West should examine, just as we, while rejecting the image that is being created about us by a few powerful interests, should try to understand the reasons for that creation being effective in some quarters.

The last three Western wars, before the latest one in Libya, perhaps suggest a reason for the suspicions of the West that mark the thinking of most young intellectuals worldwide in countries that feel a blanket hostility. Your average young thinker, here and in many non-Western nations, talks about two Western wars against Iraq and one against Afghanistan. I have often pointed out, in teaching international relations, that the first two wars were not Western wars, they were authorized by the United Nations, and there were good reasons for them being waged. But, unfortunately, it is the memory of the third war, an arbitrary decision to invade Iraq made by George Bush, and supported by just a few other countries, that governs perceptions of the motivations of the West in all three cases.

And so, with regard to Libya too, though there was a Security Council resolution, we are likely to remember only the manner in which it was interpreted in a way that those who did not stand in its way may not have dreamed of. I can only hope therefore that we will not have in this case the arrogance that made such a mess of Iraq, when the efforts of the rest of the world to play an active role in reconstruction through the United Nations were shrugged off. I hope that in Libya there will be a productive international effort that focuses primarily on the interests of the Libyan people, not a scramble for authority and influence such as we saw with the appalling self-regarding decision making that seemed to allow impunity for torture and corruption, even though I have no doubt that those were not the primary characteristics of the post-war situation.

Contrast initial impressions there with initial impressions of Afghanistan, which were universally positive, and you have the contrast between action the world at large deplores and what it can accept. And go further, and look at how the initial high hopes for Afghanistan collapsed as attention was diverted to Iraq, and you will see how the adventurism of just a few elements in the West can ruin an initially productive initiative.

So I think we have to understand the indignation felt by academics like Mahinda, and I hope the West realizes the importance of ensuring consistency and honesty in its responses, if it is not to keep fuelling the type of resentment that burst out so horrifyingly on the 11th of September ten years ago. But, equally well, I think we should also understand that there are positive aspects too to the Western approach. I have been categorical in my condemnation of Western hypocrisy and double standards in certain approaches to Sri Lanka, and I believe such criticism is necessary, instead of blindly accepting what those more powerful than us say. But at the same time we should also consider whether there are reasons for the criticisms we face, and we should try to overcome any faults in our own approaches. When we are attacked for reasons of electoral advantage or gain for the attacker, we must respond forcefully, but we should not ignore our own obligations to make things better for our own people all the time.

Let me end then by congratulating Mahinda on this book, and for drawing attention to certain trends in international relations that suggest the caution we must exercise in assessing the actions of others. But we should also be equally clearsighted in assessing our own actions. We must recognize that, as Thucydides put it so lucidly over two thousand years ago, states look after their own interests, and to expect morality is absurd. But we should not avoid our own moral imperative to scrutinize our own actions as well as those of others in the light of moral and human obligations.