National interest, our top priority - Former CPSL Gen. Sec. D.E.W. Gunasekera | Sunday Observer

National interest, our top priority - Former CPSL Gen. Sec. D.E.W. Gunasekera

20 September, 2020

Veteran Leftist D.E.W. Gunasekera who resigned from the post of General Secretary of the Communist Party of Sri Lanka (CPSL) last month, had a long career with the Left movement, joining the CPSL in 1958, entering its central committee in 1972, and becoming general secretary in 2004.

In this interview, Gunasekera reflects on his reasons for stepping down, the challenges posed by Covid-19 and neoliberalism, Sino-Lankan ties, and the CPSL’s contributions to Sri Lanka’s political, economic and foreign policy.

Q: What compelled you to resign?

A. We are entering a new phase of development in our country. In the post Covid-19 period, there will be many changes globally, regionally and nationally. Chinese President Xi Jinping recently used the term “turbulent change”.

There is a new president, a new government, and a new parliament. We are coming to the end of neoliberalism in crisis. All political parties are now trying to find a new economic strategy.

The Left movement has to assess these new developments. The Left movement in our country needs new thinking and new developments. Therefore, leadership should go to a new generation.

I belong to the third generation of Left leaders in Sri Lanka. I proposed to the central committee that the most suitable person, based on knowledge and experience, was Dr. G. Weerasinghe as the next General Secretary. He was accepted unanimously.

Of course, I am not quitting politics. I continue to be in the central committee and the politburo. But now Dr. Weerasinghe will take the initiative with new thinking, action, and planning. He belongs to the fourth generation of Left leaders.

Q: You mentioned changes in Sri Lanka. What is your analysis of these changes?

A. We are going through an economic crisis. Covid-19 is an aspect of it, and the immediate cause. But the remote cause is the neoliberal economic strategy. We have come to a point where neoliberalism in Sri Lanka has run into a crisis after 40 years.

The party which introduced neoliberalism, is completely shattered and divided today. Their pro-imperialist leader couldn’t find a place in Parliament. It was an unexpected, but inevitable consequence of the neoliberal crisis.

That is why Gotabaya Rajapaksa got such a massive mandate. Normally, under our electoral system, a two-third mandate is simply impossible. Constitutional experts never expected this. They framed the 1978 Constitution to prevent a two-third majority for any party.

The immediate task is to revive and restore the economy. In 2015, our growth rate was about 5%, but today it is less than 2%. It’s worse after Covid-19. In another two years, we have to realistically bring the growth rate back to at least 5%.

We are 55 billion US dollars in foreign debt, and 15 trillion rupees in domestic debt. We have a big shortfall in revenue. Exports have come down. We have no rupees, no dollars, and no FDI coming in. The world is in crisis, and there is no one to lend money.

The only country which can at least provide some assistance is China. That is the reality.

Q: But, doesn’t China have its own problems?

A. Of course, this recession has also affected China, because they are part of the world economy. But they had the foresight to divert goods and services to domestic consumption when trade was going down.

That is the difference between the Chinese economic and social system, and the systems of developed countries. In spite of all shortcomings, China made internal adjustments quickly, thanks to the wisdom of the Communist Party of China (CPC).

Q: Speaking of the CPC, what was your party’s role in establishing diplomatic ties with China?

A. The CPSL was the only political party which agitated for the establishment of relations with socialist countries.

Our founder, Dr. S.A. Wickramasinghe, came in contact with the CPC when he went to Paris in 1945, for the inauguration of the World Federation of Trade Unions. Chinese leaders Zhou En Lai and Deng Xiaoping were young and studying in France at the time.

The Rubber-Rice Pact, our first trade agreement with China, before the establishment of diplomatic relations, was a result of pressure by Pieter Keunemen and Dr. Wickramasinghe when rubber prices were going down, and there was a world shortage of rice.

The bourgeois, pro-imperialist UNP was compelled by historical conditions to come to an agreement with Communist China. It was comrade Pieter Keunemen who later arranged the government’s first all-party delegation to China.

Q: Have you ever visited China?

A. I have visited China about four or five times. When Deng Xiaoping launched reforms and opening-up in 1978, our party delegation was one of the first to visit the present free-trade zone in Shenzhen. At that time, infrastructure was being built.

In 1987, there was a party delegation to China headed by comrade Pieter Keunemen. One evening, during our stay, we got a message that General Secretary Hu Yaobang would like to meet three delegates of our politburo at his private residence.

We had a discussion, you will be surprised to hear, from 8 p.m. to 2 a.m. That was a time when changes were taking place in the Soviet Union. Gorbachev had come to power. He had visited China just a week before us.

Comrade Hu Yaobang told us, “I met Gorbachev and warned him to be careful of political reforms. You can do your economic reforms, but if you make political changes, you lose the political power of the party and that will be the end.”

They had warned him not to dismantle the party and state structure until economic changes were completed. Gorbachev disregarded the warning, and the Soviet Union collapsed. In 1989, the Berlin Wall fell, and the process went on until 1991.

Q: Do you think the CPC’s policy of reform and opening-up was correct?

A. When the reform and opening-up policy was introduced, a crisis was brewing in the Soviet Union. It was a closed economy, there was no competitive market or demand for what they were producing. Those are the experiences that the Chinese Communists learned from.

When the Soviet Union collapsed, Deng Xiaoping said, “We must prepare our own program for the country, taking the experiences of the socialist countries, developing countries, and the developed capitalist countries in building up the economy.’

Lenin, in the last article he wrote before he death, specifically said that socialism in the Soviet Union can only be defended if the Chinese revolution takes place. It’s simple when you interpret his intention.

If the Chinese revolution takes place and its economy develops, a huge market will be opened. That huge market is the deciding factor. Without a bigger market, a small closed economy can’t exist and compete with capitalist encirclement.

Two World Wars were fought to divide markets. After nuclear parity, another World War would have meant the destruction of the world. That is why the Communist movement took up the theory of peaceful coexistence, which was carried forward by Zhou En Lai.

That is also why China opened up the economy, established diplomatic relations with the world, and respected other ideologies. There are theories, but in practice you come across various obstacles.

Q: What is your analysis of the US-China trade war, and the Trump administration’s talk of decoupling with China?

A. Decoupling is practically impossible. Today, our world is interconnected, integrated and interdependent. New formulas have to be sought. These are political gimmicks. The reality will emerge after the November elections.

The simple reason for the trade war is that imperialism has weakened on the political and economic front. Technologically, China has come close to the US with 5G. The EU is collapsing with Brexit. Militarily, imperialism faces a strategic alliance of Russia and China.

Imperialism has from three options to choose from: competition, cooperation, or confrontation. They can’t compete with China. In the long term, they feel they will lose if they cooperate with China. They can’t confront China either. All they can do is to create regional tensions.

This situation is unprecedented in history. A developed capitalist country cannot go to war, which was the usual political solution to an economic crisis. Today, we are living in a multipolar world. America was shining under unipolarity.

Q: You mentioned the US elections in November. Do you have a preferred candidate?

A. Whoever comes after November, will have to face reality. I don’t expect big changes under Biden. In certain aspects, Trump is more positive. He’s the only President in the US who hasn’t declared a war. He only shouts. Other candidates don’t shout, but might go to war.

Q: What should Sri Lanka’s foreign policy be in the present conditions?

A. Sri Lanka has to seriously take into account the Asian region. Today, the Asian economy is the vanguard of the world economy. World attention is focused on the Asian economy.

Sri Lanka has to follow a non-aligned, equidistant policy in the context of present developments. Let’s call it “dynamic neutralism”. Friends with all countries, irrespective of ideologies. But national interest is the first priority.

As a neighbour, we have to work with India. China is a friend, and India is a relation. But friends are sometimes closer than relations in day-to-day life. Sometimes, we depend on friends more than on relations.

Q: The CPSL was founded 77 years ago with the two main goals of achieving independence and socialism. How would you assess your performance so far?

A. The Communist Party’s perspectives are long-term. Marx and Engels never lived to see socialist changes. They only pioneered and provided the concepts and theories. The Communist movement is for the long-term development of society.

We achieved independence. The Left was the only movement which called for total independence. In 1948, we got Constitutional reforms, not total independence, because we were part of the Commonwealth, and the Head of State was Queen Elizabeth.

The CPSL entered government for the first time in 1970. Only after that was a new Constitution drafted, taking us away from the British monarchy. We became a Republic with our own leader in 1972. We completed some of the anti-imperialist tasks.

Then, we achieved social development. Free education and free health services are what we fought for. Uplifting the standard of living of the peasantry, land reforms, nationalisation of estates and banks, all those radical reforms were implemented after the Left entered the government. We may not have achieved socialism, but we have to answer this question in the context of world development.