I meet a socialist

I am going to relate a brief conversation I had recently as precisely as I can remember it. The conversation contains some ungrammatical English, but do not get me wrong. I am not making fun of the English, just recording it as an example of cross-cultural communication. The fault, if you will, is entirely mine. I’m sure this would have been a perfectly grammatical conversation if I spoke even the rudiments of Sinhala. It probably also would not have been so brief.

This incident happened as I was walking home from work a few days ago. My walk takes me through the lovely, park-like, campus of the University of Peradeniya. I am walking to and from work pretty much everyday, to try to get more exercise than I do at home. It seems to be helping, in the sense that I seem to have lost a bit of weight. Not nearly enough, but a bit.

As I was walking along, a Sri Lankan man, dressed as a professional man, coming from the opposite direction along the path, hailed me. I stopped and returned his greeting. He seemed both a bit surprised and quite delighted to happen onto an obvious foreigner.

“Where are you going?,” he said.

“Uh…I’m walking home.”

“Where are you from?”

“From the US.”

“Ah! England!”

“No. USA, America.”

“Economy very bad there,” he noted.

“Yes,” I said. “It is a good time for me to be here!”

“For the people, capitalism is not the answer. Socialism is the answer.”

“Well, right now, your arguments are very pursuasive!”

“I socialism,” he declared.

And we parted.

This conversation reminded me of several things that had been on my mind to share with you all. My limited observations indicate that socialism and communism have had a bigger impact on recent political history here in Sri Lanka, as well as Asia in general, than I had understood before. Sri Lanka is officially known as the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka. If you were just to go by official names, you might think that Sri Lanka shared the same governmental forms as the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, more commonly known in the US as that member of the “axis of evil” North Korea, but, of course, that is not true at all.

However, the official name of Sri Lanka does point to the importance of socialism to the 20th century history of Sri Lanka. I gather that in Asia, independence movements were often associated with socialism or communism. Obviously that was the case in China and Vietnam where communists still rule, though both have experienced the problems with pure socialism as an economic system and have introduced market -based economic reforms. After Sri Lanka achieved independence from Britain, they began an experiment in socialism, nationalizing pretty much everything. As with many experiments in socialism, this one ran into problems almost immediately. Economies are complex systems and it has proven difficult or impossible to successfully manage any substantial economy baased entirely on state planning. In Sri Lanka, one of the key exports is, famously, tea. Not long after the tea industry was nationalized, the tea industry basically collapsed. Now the economy of Sri Lanka is mixed. There are still industries that are owned by the state but they are sometimes in competition with privately owned companies. For example, there are several banks that are state owned, but there are also private banks. If I understand correctly, the tea industry has been completely privatized and is doing much better. The state owns and runs the largest petroleum products company and controls the price of gasoline and propane. The state owns the electrical power company and sets the electricity rates. The state also controls the price of basic food items, though the grocery stores are private.

From the point of view of someone steeped in US politics, there is an aspect of Sri Lankan politics that takes some getting used to. In the US, the Republicans claim to represent a conservative economic viewpoint (though starting with Reagan and, hopefully, culminating with Bush, this has been certainly untrue though they have worked hard to maintain conservative economics as their public image) and a conservative viewpoint on social issues. Republicans are associated with a strong sense of nationalism and Democrats tendd to have a more international outlook (though there are certainly lots of exceptions to this). The Democrats generally are associated with the opposite positions in both cases. We often refer to the Republicans as being on the “right” and the Democrats being on the “left” of the “center.”

In Sri Lanka, it is different. Socially conservative political parties here are often also associated with either Sinhala nationalism or Tamil nationalism. It seems paradoxical from an American point of view to learn that here the socially conservative, strongly nationalistic parties generally advocate socialism as an economic system. So, the JVP, the largest of the strongly Sinhalese nationalistic parties has Marxist origins as does the LTTE, the Tamil group that is attempting to create a separate Tamil country on the island by force. So, the JVP for example would be described by an American as “left wing” on economics, but “right-wing” on nationalism and social conservatism. In Sri Lanka, I would say a progressive is someone who espouses free market economics and an inclusive view of a true Sri Lankan nationalism, a nation with full political and economic participation by all the ethnic groups residing on the island.

I wholeheartedly endorse the progressive view of nationalism whether applied to Sri Lanka or to the US. This viewpoint was given quite a boost here in Sri Lanka by the election of Barack Obama as president of the US. The idea that a member of a minority community could be elected to represent the majority of the population is hard to believe in Sri Lanka and it is considered astonishingly visionary. Frankly many were surprised having assumed that the election would be arranged somehow to give McCain the victory. Jubulent progressives in Sri Lanka took pens in hand and wrote articles, Op-Ed pieces, and letters-to-the-editor of the island’s newspapers saying that Obama’s election represented democracy at its best and that working for such a possibility in Sri Lanka was a goal worth striving for.

I honestly believe that Sri Lanka is on the front lines of one of the most important and contentious issues facing humanity in the 21st century. How can members of different ethnic groups live together peacefully? Do we continue what we have begun in Yugoslavia? To break up countries into ethnically homogeneous but tiny states? I doubt, for example, that such states can compete in the modern economy. Or do we find a way to build, or preserve current, multiethnic states where minorities feel that their rights are protected and they are full participants in the political and economic life of the country. Is there another option? Do countries gradually lose their existence and fade away into some kind of “One World” organization? The first option is perhaps the easiest option, but my gut tells me it is the wrong choice. I will continue to follow events in Sri Lanka as long as I live to see if Sri Lanka can lead the world down a more hopeful path.



1 Comment

  1. March 10, 2009 at 6:53 am

    […] that the project was going to be a joint project of AID and the US military. At the time, the conservative, Marxist JVP party went public with the not totally implausible claim that the US was trying to gain control of the […]

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