Sarath: In memory of a friend across the cultural borders

Sarath Fernando will be remembered as a person who allied utopia with practicality. Utopia, understood in the positive sense as something which does not exist today, but will be possible tomorrow. He was a believer in the “other possible world”. This belief was behind his commitment to the Youth Revolt of 1971 in Sri Lanka, and also his efforts to promote organic agriculture among the peasants of the island. He was inspired by his Christian faith and oriented by the Theology of Liberation, as well as deeply concerned with the values of Justice and Equality as requisites of a loving God. However he was also convinced that it was possible at the same time to be a Buddhist. In this way he was living one of the great traditions of Sri Lankan culture. To build “another world” he did not hesitate to use Marxism as a tool of analysis and as an orientation for the struggle of the oppressed.

Sarath, however, was not a lonely dreamer, he was a practical man. At one time he thought that social transformations would come from an immediate revolution. He joined the JVP and its revolt was strongly repressed, leaving some ten thousand young lives in the jungles of Sri Lanka.

Coming out of prison he accepted to work with SEDEC, the Social Action institution of the Catholic Church, organizing social projects for the most deprived sections of the population. Finally, with the same philosophy of applying the principles of justice, he founded MONLAR, the great project for emancipation of the peasants.

Most of the small and landless peasants in Sri Lanka, like in many countries of Asia, had lost faith in social organizations, in movements and Trade Unions. Too often they were deceived by the connections of those institutions with political powers - having in fact another agenda and using the peasants as an artificial social basis. Too often also, they had been victims of violent repression by Governments. Peasants felt that they had been manipulated and that many of their traditional leaders had forgotten their fundamental demands for land reform and just prices for agricultural products.

Facing such a situation and at the same time knowing that only the union of the rural forces would be able to perform the necessary changes, the strategy of Sarath Fernando was to act through convergences rather than organizations. He promoted local initiatives of organic farming, with better know-how, facilitating access to credit and new circuits of commercialization. He helped village people to protest against deforestation and against the construction of dams with their grave consequences for the land. He offered several types of services: legal, agricultural, health. All of this built confidence because of its immediate and direct effects.

But Sarath's vision was broader: he knew that without collective action, political programmes would not be affected. This why MONLAR organized some impressive marches in favor of land reform or for other national purposes; and the peasants responded in their thousands. This impressed those in political spheres and in several instances they were obliged to change their decisions and to accept the demands of the peasants. On this basis, MONLAR became a necessary interlocutor. It had to be heard, even by the World Bank, when it tried to apply neoliberal policies in the country, affecting the rights of peasants.

The intellectual contribution of Sarath Fernando has been also important. He promoted research in those fields and organized seminars with scholars of various fields. He participated in international meetings, in the World Social Forum. He contributed to thinking on rural questions by several articles in various journals and this has been an inspiration for people even outside of Sri Lanka.

The first time I met Sarath, he was in prison. Thanks to father Paul Casperz, S.J, I got permission to visit him together with a cousin of his, Mary Fernando, in the jail near Kandy. On the same occasion I got the opportunity to speak with Wijeweera, the leader of the JVP movement. Sarath did not know how long he would be kept in jail, but we spoke about the future and I suggested he join SEDEC in Colombo.

Every summer during those years, since 1968, I came to Sri Lanka with my collegue Geneviève Lemercinier during the vacations of the Catholic University of Louvain, where I was teaching sociology. We were working with SEDEC, evaluating some of the social projects of the Catholic Church and also assessing the situation of the Catholic minority in the country.  Father Joe Fernando was the director, a wonderful person, very open. When Sarath came out of prison, he agreed immediately to take him on as a collaborator of SEDEC. It was a courageous decision because the JVP were not particularly appreciated in Catholic milieus. As a matter of fact Sarath was one of the few Catholics who had joined the Movement. The JVP were more constituted by rural low caste young people, excluded from society for class and caste reasons whereas Catholics were either more urban, or living on the coasts as fishermen. The solidarity of Sarath with such social groups had been the result of a personal decision arising out of his convictions. For some time, Sarath participated in SEDEC’s social research, especially on rural projects. This allowed him to gain better understanding of the peasants’ problems.

Thanks to the Belgium Cooperation, we could obtain a scholarship allowing Sarath Fernando to come for three months to the Tricontinental Center of Louvain-la-Neuve (CETRI). I had founded it in 1976, not as a university center, but autonomous, and located on the university campus. The aim was to develop research, publications and training on the continents of the South: Asia, Africa, Latin America, in solidarity with social movements and the struggles for liberation. The name was inspired by the Tricontinental Conference of Cuba in 1966.

In Louvain-la-Neuve, Sarath absorbed the sociological thinking of the time and edited for CETRI a document on the situation of the workers in the Free Trade Zones of Sri Lanka. There were in particular young rural women working in textile and electronic industries located near the international airport of Colombo. The paper was a denunciation of the work conditions, the wages and the social situation of the workers of those factories and it has been circulated among the international Trade Unions’ organizations and in the European Union. Several European enterprises were involved in this exploitation of cheap labour.

Several times, after his stay in CETRI, Sarath invited me to Sri Lanka for seminars and meetings of MONLAR. One of them was about the project of the World Bank, in 1996, to suppress the small peasants working in the rice fields, in order to transform the agricultural activities of the country in export production. The reasoning was simple: it is cheaper to buy rice in Thailand and Vietnam than to produce it in Sri Lanka. There were several reasons for this, namely the absence of large plains. The Bank asked the Government to take adequate measure to promote this model: to suppress the regulation of rice market, to tax the irrigation water, to promote individual property of land. The two first measures were meant at making rice production non rentable and the second one to encourage the peasants to sell their land to local or foreign corporations, ready to organize cash crops for export. There was of course no consideration of the fact that that rice had formed the basis of the local diet since more than 3000 years ago, with its specific flavours; that it was part of the social history, of the culture, the literature, the poetry, the scenery of the society. The only logic was purely economic: the cost of production.

The first reaction of the existing Government was not enthusiastic and, because of the delays, the Bank cut all foreign subsidies for one year. A new Government came about after elections, much more inclined to accept neoliberal policies. It published a document called Regaining Sri Lanka, accepting the logic of the World Bank and saying that it was a good idea, because small peasants (about one million) abandoning their land could furnish humanpower to industrial activities in the Free Trade Zones and thus attract foreign capital. They forgot that this had been the policy for the previous 40 years and also that Sri Lankan workers had been able to obtain better wages and a social security system thanks to their organizations and their struggles. Foreign capital was beginning to leave the country and to go to places were the wages were lower: China and Vietnam. The response of the Government was to diminish the wages, to cut the pensions and the social security system, in order to attract at new foreign capital.

Facing this situation, Sarath Fernando organized a study group with some participants from outside. He invited me, and for several days we studied the documents in order to develop a counter-proposal as a basis for the organization of resistance. For MONLAR, it was a social struggle and also a political game. Finally the Bank had to abandon his plan, coming to the conclusion that it was not workable after a policy revision at the highest level.

In many conferences and articles I took this case as an example of the consequences of the neoliberal policies of the Washington Consensus. One occasion was the annual conference on Globalization in Cuba. Fidel Castro was present during my intervention. Later on he used the Sri Lankan case in several of his speeches.

After the Tsunami which destroyed many coastal areas and, of course, fishing communities’ activities and caused hundred of deaths, the World Bank was asked by the Government to propose a reconstruction plan. The proposal was quite technocratic with the Bank taking advantage of the catastrophe to introduce its traditional logics of privatization and of replacement of artisanal activities by industrial dimensions. The basic idea was to promote international tourism. An expressway was proposed along the coast, profiting from the destruction and pushing the populated areas 10 km inland. Several harbors were planned for fishing boats of great dimension and for marinas.

Sarath Fernando again called a group of people together to design a counter-reconstruction plan. I spent one week with MONLAR working on the project, which was trying to develop another philosophy of development based on the restoration of local fishing activities and the development of peasant agriculture in the affected zones. The aim was to exit, as soon as possible, from the aid programmes. The weight of the circumstances impeded the full realization of the World Bank plan, but the other philosophy was not really adopted by the Government. Pragmatic solutions were decided, some with beneficial consequences, some others with relatively harmful effects on the populations.

In 2010 I invited Sarath to a seminar on Peasant Agriculture in Asia organized by Professor Wen Tiejong and myself, at Renmin University in Beijing. Eleven countries participated from North, South and South-East Asia. He presented a paper on the topic in Sri Lanka. The discussions were very fruitful in a situation of intensive promotion of industrial agriculture and monoculture over the whole continent. The Chinese were very interested, because the introduction of the logic of the market tended to encourage the use of chemical products in rural areas, with all the negative effects of their intensive use. Several groups in the country were trying to promote organic peasant agriculture and the experience of MONLAR was appreciated.

Just a few days before his death Sarath wrote to me, asking me to write the preface to his book of memories. Having a heavy programme in Quito and preparing an intervention for a meeting in Brazil, I put his message in reserve for a later answer, having nevertheless decided to give a positive response. I could not imagine that my testimony would be a post-mortem one. Sarath often expressed his gratefulness for our friendship and our collaboration with his work. However, I am the most grateful for what I have learned from him about rural reality, for his expression of a deep spirituality, and for having found a real friend across the cultural borders.


Fr. François Houtart, a leading exponent of the alternative globalisation movement, is a marxist sociologist and liberation theologian.  He is the founder of the Centre Tri-continental (CETRI) and in 2010, he chaired the Dublin Session of the Peoples' Tribunal on Sri Lanka.


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