The SLFP’s crisis
Posted on December 12th, 2017

The SLFP’s crisis is a crisis of ideological identity. It is also an existential crisis. The SLFP is divided into two tendencies, a Minority (‘Menshevik’) faction with 44 seats in Parliament, led by President Sirisena, not all of them elected, and a Majority (‘Bolshevik’) faction with over 50 seats, led by former President Rajapaksa.

The ‘official’ SLFP (Minority) is a junior partner of its traditional foe the UNP, and therefore has an ideological vacuum within it. It does not know what it stands for and what it is.


The unofficial SLFP (Majority) aka SLPP or Pohottuwa, has a definite ideology which is not quite that of the mainstream center-left SLFP tradition, but increasingly that of the various ultra-nationalist pressure groups that operated alongside the party since 1955 (Eksath Bhikshu Peramuna), through 1970 (Nath Amarakone-VW Kularatne pushed through Standardization which created the Tamil youth insurgency), into the late 1980s (JVP-DJV).

In the case of the ‘unofficial’ SLFP (Majority), the tail has begun to wag the dog. In the case of the ‘official’ SLFP (Minority), it no longer knows whether it is dog, cat, fish, fowl or elephant’s tail.

SWRD Bandaranaike was a liberal, a pluralist and a populist-nationalist. His was a national liberalism and a liberal nationalism. More correctly, it was the former at certain times and the latter at certain others. It was not his populist nationalism that was the problem. It was when that nationalism was provisionally subsumed under a monolingual, mono-ethnic, mono-religious program.

Bandaranaike’s nationalism was neither that of DS Senanayake nor that of the admirable Ceylon National Congress. That was evident with his formation of the Sinhala Maha Sabha. But it was not the nationalism that he would adopt in 1955-1956 either. If not for his nationalism, he would have gone the way of the elitist Ceylon National Congress, into irrelevance as a mass democratic force.

I hardly ever agree with Prof Nalin de Silva, and we’ve always regarded each other with cordial detestation and been rightly regarded by others as bitter ideological foes, but he was quite right in his periodization of SWRD Bandaranaike’s evolution. He classifies SWRD –dismissively, as I do not–as a Westernized liberal and social democrat right up to 1955, when at the time of the Buddha Jayanthi, the Sinhala Buddhist civil society organizations, including the Buddhist monks pushed through the agenda of Sinhala Only.

Nalin de Silva identifies that as the moment of SWRD’s pivot towards and embrace of the Dharmapala movement; a pivotand re-set which resulted in 1956 taking the shape it did. For my part I regard that as precisely the moment he took a great leap backwards, and an unnecessary one because the back of the UNP had been broken by the Hartal of August 1953, the Galle Face kick-off meeting of which SWRD had chaired. However I agree with Nalin de Silva that until that point SWRD and the SLFP were well within the parameters of liberalism and social democracy, rather than Sinhala Buddhist nationalism.

Bandaranaike’s nationalism and his liberalism were perfectly compatible with his definition of the SLFP, both at its founding and in his 1957 speech at Peradeniya, as “social democratic”, as with his chairing of the Hartal rally which heralded an unarmed popular uprising (in which the SLFP did not participate) against the UNP.

SWRD’s nationalism and liberalism were also compatible with his first election manifesto which called for “the national languages” (plural) to be “state languages”, just as they were compatible with the Bandaranaike-Chelvanayakam pact and its agenda of Tamil autonomy within the quintessentially unitary state bequeathed by the Soulbury Constitution.

Today’s ‘official’ SLFP, starting with his daughter CBK, have thrown the baby out with the bathwater. The bathwater being Sinhala Buddhist chauvinism, they’ve thrown out the baby of nationalism. Having done so, they’ve allowed the baby of nationalism to be adopted by the Sinhala Buddhist chauvinists whom they detest.

Ironically, both Chandika’s brother Anura and her husband Vijaya were truer to SWRD’s political ideology than she has become. Anura was a liberal and moderate nationalist (as he proved in July 1987 and 2004), unlike CBK who has abandoned any kind of nationalism for the embrace of Ranil’s cosmopolitanism. Vijaya was a populist and a social democrat, while CBK has abandoned any kind of populism and/or social democracy in favor of Ranil and Mangala’s neoliberal globalism and free market fundamentalism.

The failure of Lankan liberalism is the failure to build back SWRD’s nationalism while junking the ethno-religious chauvinist deviation of 1955-1956. That is not what the spirit of 1956 was all about. 1956 was neither an unmixed blessing nor an unmixed curse. It had a progressive aspect and a reactionary aspect. Of the two the progressive aspect was the primary and the reactionary aspect was secondary. The ethno-religious chauvinist deviation was the secondary, reactionary aspect of 1956.

It is typical of Chandrika that the UNP leader she was always the most hostile to, Premadasa, was precisely the one who was most sympathetic to her father and closest to his ideology (indeed my father, who knew them both, wrote of Premadasa as “the SLFP within the UNP”) while the UNP leader she is allied to always positioned himself on the pro-US/UK, free market far right of the center-right party. Ranil Wickremesinghe (who as a young politician was utterly unmoved by the April 1971 youth insurrection) formally integrated the UNP, as no previous leader did, with the US Republicans and UK Conservatives, joining and becoming a Vice-President of the global organization founded by George W Bush, the International Democratic Union.

The Budget presented by CBK’s chief ally Mangala Samaraweera envisages the dismantling of three pieces of progressive agrarian legislation (the Paddy Lands Act of 1958 and the Land Reforms of 1972 and 1975), the removal of the land ceilings, and the opening up to large-scale holdings by multinationals, all of which would bury the most progressive laws of her father’s and mother’s governments of 1956 and 1970, which CBK herself identified so closely with as the Director, Land Reform Commission and Chairperson, Janavasa Commission.

The chief economic advisor and ideologue of the Ranil-Mangala duo is Prof Razeen Sally, a member of the ultra-right Mont Pelerin Society founded by and dedicated to the ideals of FW Hayek! One wonders what CBK’s old professor and intellectual hero Charles Bettelheim would have said about all this!

Under Chandrika’s tutelage, the official SLFP has returned to the B-C Pact and gone beyond it,back to SWRD’s exploratory 1925 articles as a young returnee from the UK, on federalism, but having junked the larger progressive paradigm of SWRD, the SLFP and 1956: national independence and sovereignty, populism, social welfare, a strong state sector, and the Spirit of Bandung i.e. Third Worldism with a tilt to Russia and China.

This is a pity because President Sirisena would have been a natural legatee of the 1956+1957 (B-C Pact) heritage of SWRD.He has been forced to turn away from 1951-1956 because Chandrika has pushed the party away from the Middle Path into a role of tailing behind the UNP on the pro-Western Right Path, i.e. the wrong path, the path of the UNP which her father SWRD broke away from and won his greatest victory over in 1956,which her mother repeated in 1970.

In the growing Oppositional space, Mahinda Rajapaksa, the Rajapaksa family, and Prof GL Peiris would naturally have been a strong, organic center-left or liberal-nationalist moderate center, but they have been pulled to or pushed by the neo-nationalist populist Right, due to the ideological gravitational effect or osmosis of the Buddhist clergy and civil society as well as Diaspora pressure groups. Thanks to Yahapalana’s Geneva 2015 accountability, appeasement as reconciliation and the drive for a new non-unitary Constitution, there is a second edition unfolding of ‘The Revolt in the Temple’ that DC Wijewardena wrote of in the 1950s.

The B-C Pact of 1957 was the corrective of the negative aspect of 1956, but 1956 is greater and more progressive than its negative aspect. Bandaranaike can neither be reduced to the Sinhala only aspect of 1956 nor to the B-C Pact of 1957 (still less to the federalist episode of 1925-6).

Instead of tracing a path back to the wrong turning of 1955 and taking the correct one back to the founding document of the SLFP in 1951, the party’s first election manifesto of 1952, and SWRD’s attempt to return to it in 1957-58 with the B-CPact and the Kurunegala sessions, Chandrika and the Lankan liberals have tried to put the clock back to pre-1951, before SWRD’s rupture with the UNP, and bring the SLFP back under the dominance of the UNP—and that too a UNP far to the right of UNP tradition and closest to the disastrous UNP profile of 1956.

The official SLFP stands for ‘1957 without 1956’. Under the influence of CBK, who has betrayed both the ‘B’ and the ‘K’ of her dual surnames; the political ideals of her father, mother, husband and brother; the heritages of Bandaranaike and Kumaratunga, the ‘official’ SLFP has capitulated to the supinely pro-western foreign policy and economic neoliberalism of the comprador UNP. CBK has become the Countess of Compradorefication of the SLFP.

Meanwhile, in an inside-out, upside-downmirror image, the anti-government SLPP as well as the ‘outrider’ Eliyaand Viyath Magaformations, stand for ‘1956 without 1957’. They have deviated from the Middle Path of moderate nationalism and social democracy and succumbed to a discourse of nativistneo-conservatism, fighting shy of defending President Rajapaksa’s heavily documented stand on devolution, and criticizing devolution/power-sharing (“balaya bedeema”) as such, not only beyond 13A or in its federalist form. An Eliya spokesperson recently resurrected the antiquarian ‘Sinhala/Tamil place-names’ discourse of extreme Sinhala nationalism. The dominant ideological undercurrent is a return to pre-1987, a latent rejection of the Indo-Lanka Accord and the 13th amendment, and a lurch away from pragmatism in the dangerous direction of nativism, Sinhala exceptionalism, unilateralism and neo-isolationism.

In the current global situation and given regional geopolitical realities, a ‘1956 without a 1957’ built-in or attached, would be unsustainable and disastrously self-destructive, while in the present post-war, post victory national context, a ‘1957 without a larger 1956’ would be no less unsustainable and violently self-destructive.

Who then will stand for ‘1956 plus 1957’, the true policy and legacy of SWRD and the SLFP, and the authentic project of a Sri Lankan social democracy inspired by a liberal nationalism,a nationalist liberalism?

What Sri Lanka needs is a return to this vision of SWRD Bandaranaike and the founding ideology and program of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party, which was an anti-UNP eclectic fusion of the ‘Five Great Forces’ (‘Pancha Maha Balavegaya’) of ideas and ideologies: liberalism, nationalism, pluralism, populism and social democracy. There lies the New Middle Path.

3 Responses to “The SLFP’s crisis”

  1. Dilrook Says:

    Tamil youth took to terrorism on May 22, 1972, at a time when university standardization was not enacted! Standardization helped Tamils more than Sinhalese. Until then Batticaloa, Vanni and Nuwara Eliya Tamils could not get into university. Very few LTTE terrorists (only luxury business leaders of the LTTE) came from Jaffna. Most came from poor Vanni and Batticaloa.

    SWRD didn’t change into nationalism in 1955. It happened in 1936 with the formation of the Sinhala Maha Sabha in retaliation to the Tamil Mahajana Sabha of 1918. Dayan must be reminded of that SWRD’s party contested separately from the UNP in some electorates under Sinhala Maha Sabha in 1947 winning seats and establishing him as a future leader.

    Another lie is the mono-ethnic charge. Bandaranaike was supported by Muslims and Christians too. A single official language is a feature of all peaceful democracies! No one has a right to their language to become an official or national language.

    CBK has her problems but she didn’t worsen separatism when she took charge in 1994. She tried various gimmicks but all failed. She failed to do any constitutional change to advance devolution, didn’t leave behind 13A, a Perumal or a Wigneswaran or a LLRC. Above all, her foreign minister Kadirgamar (the best ever) didn’t accept advice from 13A midwifes.

    Dayan’s emphasis on 1957 makes no sense. What was signed in 1957 was torn off in 1958!

    There is no theory that says middle path (political centre) is the best in politics. World politics has chosen the far right today. Sri Lanka should not fear it. Nationalism (1956 without 1957) is the only way SLPP can produce the next president and/or prime minister. Dayan must study how UNP was dislodged in the past – 1956, 1970, 1994 and 2004. On 3 occasions – 1956, 1970 and 2004 – it was ultra-nationalism that worked. The only exception was 1994 CBK which Dayan dislikes. This is irrefutable proof why SLPP must be ultra nationalist in order to win.

    SLFP followed the middle path in 1951, 1982, 1988, 2001 and 2015 and lost.

    Nationalist elements have been thrown out of the SLPP! NFF and MEP MPs have crossed over from the SLPP to the SLFP. The only other nationalist party PHU too has threatened defection. If this continues, nothing of substance will be left in the SLPP. Who is behind the de-nationalisation (and pro-Americanization) of the SLPP? Is it the 13A enabler again whose associations always lost – Perumal, Premadasa and Percy (Mahinda) after 2009? Will SLPP be the next “P” to end up like this?

  2. samurai Says:

    In 2006 Buddhist Organisations highlighted important facts the writer of this article has totally ignored. The Malaysia-based website Buddhist Channel reported their meeting under the headline “Sri Lankan government urged to study 1956 Buddhist Committee Report”…

    Colombo, Sri Lanka — Buddhist organizations are urging the government to implement five proposals to arrest the decline of Buddhist values and culture in Sri Lanka. The Venerable Medagama Dhammananda of the Asgiriya Chapter, Kandy read out these proposals at a meeting held at Ananda College, Colombo on October 3.
    The event was in connection with the republication of the Report of the Buddhist Committee of Inquiry that helped the SLFP victory of 1956.
    The report was reprinted to mark the 2550th Buddha Jayanthi and 50 years since the document was first published. All Buddhist organizations in the country were represented at the ceremony.
    The Ven. Dhammananda, who is also Project Director, `Jayagrahanaya Sri Lanka,’ called upon the government to
    Stop television programs that corrupt young minds and lower the level of language standards
    Enforce the Sanghadirakarana Act to punish so-called monks who tarnish the image of the Buddhist clergy
    Safeguard the country’s unity and territorial integrity while continuing to give prominence to Buddhism
    Establish a Supreme Advisory Council to correctly present to society the views of the Buddhist clergy and
    Implement the recommendations of the Buddha Sasana Commission.
    The Ven.Dhammananda expressed regret that the Freedom of Religion (anti-conversion) Bill had not yet been enforced although it was presented in Parliament. Such laws have been a long felt need in the country in the context of issues that the Buddhist Committee Report raised five decades ago, he noted.
    Speaker of the House W.J.M. Lokubandara called upon the UNP to have a fresh look at the 50-year-old Buddhist Committee report that accelerated the party’s ignominious defeat in 1958, reducing the number of its seats in Parliament to eight. There are lessons to be learnt from it, he said. Many of the points raised in the report are valid now as then according to the Speaker, who called himself a person above party politics.
    He also stressed that those who want to implement the President’s Mahinda Chinthanaya (Thoughts of Mahinda) should read the report. Lokubandara said that a copy of it should be in every Buddhist temple.
    The Venerable Dr. Bellanwila Wimalarathana who delivered the keynote address, said that unlike today, Sri Lanka in the 1950s had a strong lay Buddhist leadership that campaigned relentlessly against the powerful brown sahibs, who relegated the island’s traditional religious values and Sinhala language virtually to the dustbin. In 1956 while Sir John Kotalawala’s UNP government was dawdling over the proposals that were made in the Buddhist Committee Report, the MEP (Mahajana Eksath Peramuna) comprising the SLFP and several other Opposition parties endorsed the report’s recommendations, thus paving the way S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike’s electoral victory that became a watershed in the country’s history, he recalled.
    Some of the recommendations however still remain to be implemented, the Ven. Dr. Wimalarathana noted. He also told the audience that vested interests are making allegations of Buddhist `fundamentalism’ meaning dogmatism, which the Buddha Dhamma had nothing to do with.
    The Buddhist Committee of Inquiry was set up on April 2, 1954 in accordance with the resolution adopted at the 33rd annual conference of the All Ceylon Buddhist Congress held at Kegalle on December 27, 1953 . The `Buddhist Commission’ as it came to be popularly known, held its sitting throughout the length and breadth of the country beginning at Ratnapura on June 26, 1954 and concluding at Anuradhapura on May 22, 1955. It heard evidence from organizations and individuals representing all sections of Buddhist society.
    The Committee comprised among others, the Venerable Abanwelle Siddhartha, Ven. Haliyale Sumanatissa,Ven. Balangoda Ananda Maitreya, Ven. Palonnaruwe Vimaladhamma, Dr.G.P. Malalasekera, S. Kularatne, Dr.Tennekoon Wimalananda, L.H. Mettananda and D.C. Wijayawardena.
    An abridged English version of the report was published under the title, The Betrayal of Buddhism. After recording in detail the injustices done to Buddhists laity and clergy from the days of Western colonial occupation to the post-independence years, the report made the following observation its concluding chapter titled `Tolerance’ :
    “Almost every page of this Report bears witness to the extent and duration of Buddhist tolerance (in the colonial era). And yet fully eight years after this country is alleged to have gained independence, when Buddhists ask for some of that justice which has been denied to them for centuries, they are characterized as a truculent majority and asked to show tolerance. By a flagrant disregard of historical fact and contemporary reality, the Buddhists are made to appear in the light of domineering tyrants…”
    Gevindu Kumaratunga, proprietor of Visidunu Publications and kinsman of the well-known Sinhala linguist and writer, Munidasa Kumaratunga, undertook the task of reprinting the Committee Report.
    Among the others who spoke were Minister of Indigenous Medicine and Deputy Religious Affairs Minister Tissa Karaliyadde, Dr. Gunadasa Amarasekera, Ven. Bellana Gnanawimala and the Ven. Weweldeniye Medhalankara.
    Courtesy: Buddhist Channel

  3. Ratanapala Says:

    Dayan’s analysis has no mention of the part played by the Christian Churches. Catholic and other Christian and their subversive actions to deny the Sinhala Buddhists their due rights and priveledges find no place in this “looking scholarly analysis”.

    The part played by Catholic Action then and stil now find no mention. Buddhists actions whether in Sri Lanka, Myanmaar or elsewhere are only reactive responses to when their personnel space is invaded. Yet they get branded by the likes of Dayan as Buddhist Chuvanists.

    This term is never applied to Christians or Muslims. This shows a serious lapse of this analysis.

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.



Copyright © 2023 All Rights Reserved. Powered by Wordpress