Beating adversity with books: Wimal Weerawansa’s slingshot
Posted on June 10th, 2017

By Rohana R. Wasala Courtesy The Island

The time has come to be proud of what we are.-Alvaro Garcia Linera, Vice President of Bolivia

In trying to silence Wimal Weerawansa for a time his enemies have succeeded in provoking him to talk louder than usual by means of two books he has written during his eighty-seven day incarceration. ‘Ratata uvamana vama’ (The Left the Country Needs) and ‘Yadamin baendi akshara’ (Letters in Manacles) need little advertising for promoting their sale and for making an impact on the readers, given the circumstances in which they have been composed. The first of these came out early last month (i.e. May); the second is due soon. ‘Ratata uvamana vama’ (ISBN 978-955-677-5) is published by Fast Publishing Pvt Ltd, 165 Devanampiyatissa Mawatha , Colombo 10, and distributed by Surasa Poth Maedura, 617 Maradana Road, Colombo 10. I have read ‘Ratata uvamana vama’. I was struck by the quality of Weerawansa’s writing, the cogency of his message for the nation, and his passionate reasoning. Weerawansa’s refreshingly inspiring voice resonates through the pages of this book for us whose ears have long been jarred by the meaningless braying of the few political dumbasses, young and old, who merely insult and ridicule him instead of trying, if possible, to counter his arguments on a rational basis.

Weerawansa wrote the book within a short period of a few days while being confined in my cell in the ‘E’ wing reserved for special inmates in the Magazine Prison, with my back to the locked iron door, gazing up at the bleak sky through the iron bars of its small window, thinking about…..” (p. 35, beginning of Chapter 1 – Readers, please be informed that I am taking the liberty of translating passages from the book into English only for the purpose of this review). The remarkable thing is that the trauma of this physical and mental stress has left no marks on the language of the book. Weerawansa is as articulate as ever. There is no bitterness or personal anger expressed towards the people who disagree with him, some of whom were probably behind his unenviable situation; there is only rational criticism. He is effectively demonstrating his Buddhist moral training. He has a well argued case to engage the attentive reader. Weerawansa’s writing, like his speeches, is clear and fluent. As a popular politician is obliged to do on the political platform, he sometimes displays his skills as a ‘mob orator’, too. ‘Mobile vulgus’  excitable crowd is a fact of life for a person engaged in practical democratic politics. In the book, however, the author’s language is restrained, thoughtful, and somewhat formal, and is meant to appeal to the readers’ intellect , rather than to indulge their desire for levity and light entertainment as they are used to at a mass political rally.

But there is no cold theorizing for its own sake. The wide range of topics pertaining to the subject taken up for discussion throbs with their vital topicality, their immediate relevance to the live action on the current Sri Lankan political stage. The first two chapters are historical, dealing with the story of the advent of the concept of world domination among human societies and the emergence of the modern nation state, not at an abstruse academic level, but at a level that ordinary readers are comfortable with. In the third chapter we have a discussion of modern day imperialism, which Weerwansa identifies with ‘goleeya  supiri samaajaya’ ‘global super society’ or ‘nava liberal vaadaya’ ‘neoliberalism’. The next two chapters (04 and 05) deal with the past and present predicament of Sri Lanka vis-à-vis imperial powers. Chapter 06 is about India as the crooked regional agent of global imperialism. The next chapter is devoted to the experience of the Soviet left in dealing with imperialism. The Chinese imperial experience as distinct from the Russian, and the Cuban as against the Chinese is the focus of the next two chapters. The abortive left movement of Sri Lanka is taken up in Chapter 10. The next two chapters suggest the way forward for us in association with Buddhism as exemplified in the legacy of Emperor Asoka, and also as reflected in local cultural values upheld in (ancient Lankan) statecraft. The important 13th chapter relates Buddhist civilizational ideals to the business of government. The final chapter (Chapter 14) treats the most intellectual aspect of the practical strategy presented by the book for a truly monumental change…..It is titled: ‘santanagatha venasin sanstagatha venasakata’ which I would translate as Institutional change through internal transformation” or alternatively, From inner to institutional transformation”; the importance of the pioneering role of the country’s  socially engaged youth is emphasized here. No doubt, it is as much an educational process as it is a political one.  Weerawansa calls this generation the ‘Maga Manawaka’ generation’ after Maga, the kindhearted young man in the Jataka story, the Bodhisathwa or Buddha-to-be in one of his previous births, who was able, through the power of his own high moral character, to transform a poor  backward village, into a flourishing one with roads, hospitals, schools, shops, and rest houses for the benefit of its inhabitants despite opposition from established corrupt forces. This he did with the cooperation of thirty-two young friends he inspired by his example. The fourteen chapters of the book are framed by a prologue and an epilogue written by two patriotic public intellectuals of our time, namely, Dr Gunadasa Amerasekera and Ven. Professor Wilegoda Ariyadeva Nayake Thera.

The author’s preamble to the book (pp. 19-32) opens with the following poetic quote:

Deep is the night. The city is asleep. Everything is silent. It is difficult to imagine that even during this time, the great History operates. History doesn’t sleep. It makes use of people’s sleep to play its next trick.”

Others may be sleeping. But Weerawansa is wide awake. Surrounded by the deep dark silent night in his lonely prison cell, he is writing to awaken  the currently somnolent nation to a new dawn inspired by the  legacy of our millennia old Buddhist civilization.  The concluding paragraph of the book proper (p. 205),   harks back to this inspirational beginning. (The unnumbered section titled ‘nava liberal vaadaya pilibanda jaatyantara nidasunak’ ‘An international illustration of neo-liberalism’ may be treated as an appendix. It is an essay about the iconic Alvaro Garcia Linera, Bolivian vice-president since 2006, and his anti-neoliberal ideology).  ‘Ratata uvamana vama’ concludes:

The civilized man that broadcasts the message of national freedom across the remote countryside as well as the nearer competition-crazy cityscape, lives within you. First of all, call that man of culture out.  Second, awaken the inner psyche of others in the name of the institutional revolution that is opposed to neo-liberalism. Don’t allow the story of our nation’s distressful progress to be written in the bloody characters (letters) of the global super society” instead of writing the next chapter of (our) history in your own hand.”

When writing in Sinhala, the masculine noun ‘minisa’  ‘man’ in this context (as elsewhere in the book) is virtually gender neutral unlike when writing in English, where such use would provoke a charge of sexism or male bias in language. In Sinhala, gender equality is not an issue; it is taken for granted, a reflection of the unique Buddhist cultural values that inform our social ethos, the main strand of Weerawansa’s dialectical critique of neo-liberalism as it applies to our country. In his opinion, as I understand it, the current onward march of destructive neo-liberalism has to be opposed with a genuine leftist movement firmly grounded in our age old Buddhist civilizational foundation (which should be tapped to engineer the previously mentioned ‘inner transformation’).   The near disappearance of our country’s initially vibrant left movement is mainly due, Weerawansa suggests, to the abysmal failure of traditionalist left  leaders (clinging desperately and  irrationally to Marxist dogma as infallible) to indigenize socialism by rooting it in our native Buddhist culture (Ref. Chapter 10 Lankawe pota patalawagath vama ‘Lankan left tied up in knots’ pp. 103-117).

To prove the frivolity of treating the early pioneers of socialist thinking as infallible and inviolable, Weerwansa quotes on p. 172 of his book  the following words of J.B.S. Haldane from his  Preface (1939) to Friedrich Engel’s ‘Dialectics of Nature’ (1883, unfinished):

A few readers may object to my pointing out that Engels was occasionally wrong. Engels would not have objected. He was well aware that he was not infallible, and that the Labour Movement wants no popes or inspired scriptures. The Condition of the Working Class in England in 1844, of which an English translation had been published in America in 1885, was first published in England in 1892. In his preface written after forty-eight years he says:

“I have taken great care not to strike out of the text the many prophecies, amongst others that of an imminent social revolution in England, which my youthful ardour induced me to venture upon. The wonder is, not that a good many of them proved wrong, but that so many of them have proved right.”

To get back to the beginning of the book, the quote on page 20 corresponds to  the following extract from Francis Fukuyama’s essay ‘The End of History’ published in the international affairs journal The National Interest, No. 16 (Summer 1989), pp. 3-18, out of which developed his 1992 book ‘The End of History and the Last Man’.

What we may be witnessing is not just the end of the Cold War, or the passing of a particular period of post-war history, but the end of history as such: that is, the end point of mankind’s ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government.”

In ‘Ratata uvamanaa vama’ Weerawansa confidently questions Fukuyama’s conclusion. What Fukuyama describes as ‘Western liberal democracy’ and what he claims is being universalized  as ‘the final form of human government’ is the neo-liberal imperialism that Weerawansa criticizes and identifies with what is known as ‘Global Super Society’.

Weerawansa explains the importance of Buddhist cultural values for sustaining peaceful religious coexistence. At the same time he points out that the greatest strength we have against the dominance of the ‘global super society’ is humanity based on Buddhist cultural and ethical values. A person schooled in such an environment does not pursue the goal of ‘paradise on earth of western modernity’ as he calls it, but ‘the noblest wealth of contentment’. The Heritage Foundation of the USA recently revealed the abject dependent state of the Sri Lankan economy, Weerawansa points out. Such economic dependence is a pre-requisite for a country to be kept subdued to the global super society (p. 189). Weerawansa says that SL’s high growth rate in the 2010-14 period had declined by the end of 2016 under the new regime (pp. 190-191). He demonstrates how Sri Lanka is being turned into a deformed state and a divided state” (Garcia Linera’s phrase),  and how it is sunk to the very bottom of civilization (pp. 192-93) in two ways:  first, by removing the state economy, resources, and national food security from the control of citizens, and second, by the structural fragmentation of the state (a reference to the proposed constitutional changes by the government). Weerawansa also mentions war crimes allegations raised by the former American ambassador in Sri Lanka Patricia Butenis on 15-01-2010 against Mahinda Rajapaksa and his family (Wikileaks) and other destructive operations (p. 195).  Weerawansa equates the Global Super Society with the new liberal imperialism that is inflicting itself on us. On pages 196 to 197, he accuses the present administration for having betrayed Sri Lanka’s victory over terrorism.

Wimal Weerawansa is unique as a politician. Apart from his passion for politics he demonstrates considerable artistic talents. He writes poetry, sings, and draws. He also displays a high level of intellectual refinement and rational intelligence, an extremely rare quality among our average politicians. We need a few more of his caliber in these critical times.

The significant penultimate paragraph of the last chapter (14) runs as follows:

We need to disseminate this knowledge and this discourse for people’s internalization. They should be subjected to an internal transformation that is capable of bringing to birth an institutional transformation. First and foremost, we need to take the initiative for the change within ourselves! We should first defeat the enemy within us! Though the night puts people to sleep, it does not put History to sleep. Therefore we must become people who keep awake even in the night. We ought to transform the living heroism of our heroic ancestors buried in history into a vital force in the modern national liberation movement.” (p. 204)

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