By Rajan Philips –
Sri Lanka has had many watershed moments in the last hundred years, some quiet and positively consequential, others violent and destabilizing. To the first category belong the introduction of universal franchise in 1931, and independence from colonial rule that came in 1948. SWRD Bandaranaike’s election victory in 1956, and the Republican Constitutions of 1972 and 1978, were not violent, nor were they destabilizing in themselves, but they gave rise to violent and destabilizing watershed moments, namely, the periodical riots targeting minorities from 1956 onward, culminating in July 1983 and everything that followed including the war. The violent and destabilizing events that do not fit this schema are the 1915 Sinhalese-Muslim riots and the 1971 JVP insurrection. The second JVP insurrection of the late 1980s was not an extension of the first, but rather a part of the July 1983 aftermath.
A hundred years after the island’s first ethnic riot and thirty years after its worst, Sri Lanka should have learnt its lessons and be mindful of the risk of the rebirth of past riots. Not at all. The country, especially the Rajapaksa government and its advisors seem to have learnt nothing from and forgotten everything about our past burdens. In February this year, Dr. Amir Ali, academic and economic historian who has written a comprehensive account of the causes and consequences of the 1915 riots, issued the warning that “the spectre of 1915 is looming large on the horizon,” and posed the question: “Is the country marching backwards?” Dr. Ali sees strong parallels in what he calls the Islamophobia that led to the 1915 riots and the new phobia that is being fomented by organizations such as the Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU) and its offshoot, the Bodu Bala Sena (BBS).
The significance of 1983
Last year, journalist Latheef Farook asked: “Is Sri Lanka heading towards another July ’83”?, this time targeting the Muslims. Although, thank God, nothing as catastrophic as July 1983 has happened in 2013, some pro-government commentators are worrisomely trying to diminish the significance of July 1983, even if they cannot plausibly deny it. This is a new and disturbing development. One of the arguments appears to be that there have been worse killings and destruction in other months and other years after July 1983, and involving members of other communities and not just the Tamils who were victimized in July 1983, so why should July 1983 be singled out as the worst catastrophe, or destabilizing watershed?
One simple answer is that many things in Sri Lanka changed from what they were before July 1983 to what they became after July 1983. The same cannot be said of another month or year either before July 1983, or after it. For many Tamils, everything changed from what was before July 1983 to what became after July 1983. For others, the changes were not as radical, or dramatic. True enough, life changed radically and dramatically for every victim – Sinhalese, Muslim, or Tamil – of war and violence that came after July 1983. But all of them were triggered by July 1983, they were the aftermaths of July 1983.
It is not necessary or useful to quantitatively compare one destructive event with another and argue which is worse. What is necessary and responsible to do is to qualitatively see the common threads through all those events and try to make sure that these events do not turn into never ending rebirths. One positive common thread through all the riots has been the support and protection given by many Sinhalese individuals and families to their Tamil friends and their families who were targeted by political goons.
The main political significance of July 1983 was that the UNP government of the day abdicated its responsibility to maintain law and order, and to protect life and property, in order to allow its own rioters to go on the rampage, breaking law and order, destroying property and killing innocent people. At no time, before or after, and regardless of the provocation, has any government acted, or not acted, in the manner the UNP government did in July 1983. The insurrections and war atrocities were different in that they were committed by armed combatants, the Sri Lanka army on the side and, mostly, the LTTE on the other side.
The main fallout from the events of July 1983 was the turning over of Sri Lankan affairs to go under global spotlight and India’s permanent gaze. Those who are calling for the repeal of the Thirteenth Amendment because it was allegedly imposed by India on the then Sri Lankan government, are conveniently forgetting that if the same Sri Lankan government had prevented the July 1983 catastrophe, it could have avoided the war, and there would have been no cause whatsoever for India, or any other country, to have got involved in Sri Lanka’s affairs to the extent they are now involved. In all likelihood, they will continue to be involved so long as the Rajapaksa government continues on its present path of diversion and distraction – creating new parliamentary committees to bypass the LLRC recommendations, and fomenting new Islamophobia thinking that it might impress the West, if not India. On the contrary, by sponsoring Islamophobia the government is not going to impress anyone, but will only alienate the Middle Eastern countries, and put in peril Sri Lanka’s overseas jobs and trade linkages in the Arab world.
The Teflon and the Scapegoat
The revisiting of July 1983 and opposition to 13A are two sides of the same reactionary political coin, and the same commentators keep tossing the coin from one face to the other. The two are also connected to the mood of triumphalism that followed the war, along with the political decision to close the door on devolution. It is being suggested that it is not devolution that is required to accommodate the Tamils and Muslims, but equality of citizenship. That may be so in other contexts but it is not the case in Sri Lanka, where devolution has become both the symbol of and the substantial matrix within which the Tamils and Muslims can pursue the goal of equality of citizenship. To deny devolution is to deny equality to the minorities. 13A is no longer an exclusively TNA insistence, but is also a primary concern of the SLMC.
President Rajapaksa is given all the credit for winning the war and he does not shy away from taking even more credit than he is given. But who is to take the blame for what has happened after the war or, rather, what has not happened in terms of vigorously pursuing political reconciliation? President Rajapaksa gave the appearance that he was continuing the positive political efforts of President Kumaratunga and Prime Minister Wickremasinghe, through the different committees he set up, even as he was prosecuting the war.
If he had brought those efforts to a positive conclusion after winning the war, his presidency and the country would be in quite a different juncture than where they are now. Rather than uniting the country after winning the war, President Rajapaksa has divided his own government over the Thirteenth Amendment. He has given a new life to the old forces of bigotry and extremism, who have done their black communal magic to resurrect the spectre of 1915, and to reject the lessons of 1983.
The funny thing is that President Rajapaksa does not get the blame for any of this. At least nothing seems to stick on him. He is the non-stick political frying pan, the Teflon President. Even those who are supporters of President Rajapaksa but are not happy with what goes on in the government, will not blame the President for their disaffection. Instead, they will blame the bad advisors who have somehow surrounded President Rajapaksa and displaced the really good advisors.
On the other hand, Ranil Wickremasinghe is the easy whipping post for every political commentator in Sri Lanka. Mr. Wickremasinghe gets stuck with everything. There is no blame that Mr. Wickremasinghe can shake off. He is the permanent scapegoat of Sri Lankan politics. It is Ranil Wickremasinghe’s fault that he is not able to mount sufficient opposition to stop the Rajapaksa government’s misdoings. And it is also Ranil Wickremasinghe’s fault (partly because he did not vigorously support the patriotic war) that he can never become President and put an end to Mahinda Rajapaksa continuing in office, without term limits, and presiding over one postwar misdoing after another.
“The people can cheer the Queen and damn the government”, said Sir Ivor Jennings to explain one aspect of the usefulness of the monarchical system in the United Kingdom. In Sri Lanka’s presidential system, the people can damn everyone else, especially Ranil Wickremasinghe, while Mahinda Rajapaksa’s supporters keep cheering their President.