By Deirdre McConnell –
What is the difference between a “changing context” and a “paradigm shift”?
The anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa spanned most of the last century. A paradigm shift, enabled by a vast political process of struggle, was required to make the radical change from minority white oppressive rule, to the majority, black people, being included in government. The repressive mechanisms that had tried to crush activists, human rights defenders and all who struggled for civil rights and justice – were notorious. The methods included systematic violence, torture and killings. I remember clearly that fateful day when Ruth First was killed by a parcel bomb in 1982. Her daughter spoke on BBC Radio recently.
Many factors eventually led to those in power, who maintained an unjust oppressive system for decades, accepting a completely transformed situation where they no longer held the power alone – but shared it with all citizens. Many had asserted that change was impossible. They lacked vision, compassion and political will. But the movement of peoples and systems which favoured change, in the end succeeded in overturning the “Nothing-can-ever-change” brigade.
In South Africa, the change was stark and liberating. A friend of mine, in his 30’s, doing post-graduate study in the UK, returned to his country, South Africa, in 1994 to vote for the first time in his life. It was a moving experience – a sense of being liberated from shackles of oppression.
A crucial component of the change process was the country facing up to the violent deeds and effects of the past. Truth had long been a casualty and victim and while the real facts were buried, there could be no reconciliation. There has to be a sense of collective remorse for violations committed – for the healing power of reconciliation to work.
It is at best laughable, as worst cruel and calculating, to say reconciliation can happen while the oppressed are continually exploited and down-trodden – and when there has been no meaningful change.
Of course promise of change can go on and on without ever materialising in anything worth the paper it is written on.
Unfortunately this is the case in Sri Lanka. There has been a change of government, but the real underlying injustices are still as firmly in place as ever. Messages and speeches for international consumption are cleverly constructed to give a cosmetic image of real change. But nothing could be further from the truth. It was the Tamils in the North and East firmly supporting the new President, who were the “kingmakers” ensuring his success. Without them he couldn’t have become President. They were hoping for real change. Yet there was nothing in Sirisena’s election pledges about their future at all. Despite Sri Lanka saying in international forums for decades that “the government is working on a political solution for the Tamils” no fruit has ever been produced.
Sri Lanka managed to garner support from many countries when the informal discussions on the UN resolution took place in Geneva in March 2014 during the Human Rights Council – HRC. Attempts were made to water it down, to remove mention of the 13th Amendment, remove any reference to demilitarisation in the North and East, and so on. Fortunately these efforts were not successful. It has long been established that militarisation of society leads to increased human rights violations and increased persecution of human rights defenders. But Sri Lanka has strong paid lobby to support its dissemination of its perspective.
It is very important to realise that when a government is committing genocide, it will do anything it possibly can, including violent repression, torture and victimisation, to ensure that no other State interferes in its genocidal programme. This is critical. No one can justify or accept genocide. So at all cost the reality has to be kept from the understanding of the international community.
In reality, Tamils in Sri Lanka have been, and are, victims of genocide. I do not have space here to go through the well-established arguments. But they are crystal clear and indisputable. The Tamils are a people. The Sri Lankan state has, over decades, calculatedly used state apparatus to conduct systematic massacres of genocidal proportions. This has been well documented by the highest and most objective of international human rights organisations. Representations have been made to UN human rights mechanisms since 1987, our organisation has been working on this since 1990.
Genocide has eight stages. The final one is denial. A book could be written on each of these stages with regard to the suffering of the Tamils of Sri Lanka.
Do not let the fact that the Tamils rose up in a liberation movement to defend themselves – having been put in a position where they were forced to wage an armed struggle as last resort – cloud your understanding of cause and effect. Yes, once war was all-out, there were killings on both sides.
However we must never forget that the armed forces of the state were responsible for the vast majority of the killings of Sinhalese civilians through the actions of homeguards and paramilitary forces. As said earlier, the Sri Lankan armed and security forces wielded a horrific level of persecution against the Tamil people. Victims were tortured, disappeared, killed, women were gang-raped and murdered, the whole population starved by a cruel economic embargo for years, mass displacements of civilians who languish in IDP camps for decades, continuing even now, bombing and artillery shelling of Tamil areas since the 1980s… the list goes on.
We all know the culmination of the killings in 2009. The war crimes committed by the Sri Lanka government since the 1980s grotesquely became a heinous “final solution” – and the rest is history. See the Channel 4 documentary “Killing Fields”, Read the report of the Panel of UN Experts – and many other documents available.
All this, the Sri Lankan governments (previous and present) would like the international community to ignore, sweep under the carpet. They would like the world to think that all the past problems can be resolved by a domestic process of inquiry and reconciliation. But that is impossible. The same authorities believing in the justified oppression and killing of Tamils, will be in charge, and create yet another smokescreen to try to hide the brutal reality.
Foreign Minister Mangala Samaraweera’s statement to the HRC was excellent for consumption by the international community. The commitment to the LLRC – which lacks by far the rigour and vision needed in the situation, his reference to the re-introduction of 17th amendment and repeal of the 18th – are all intended to make the international community feel the government is committed to positive change – to human rights, reconciliation, accountability and co-operation.
But he should, and could, have spoken about commitment to real political change, to the devolution of political authority, to the 13th amendment, long referred to in speeches to foreign audiences. But it is put on and off the government agenda like a hot potato. Such devolution is integral to reconciliation and the full enjoyment of human rights by all the population, as the UNHRC resolution articulates.
Predictably, he talked about South Africa and the government so-called commitment to a Truth and Reconciliation process. But South Africa must not be fooled. There is not even a whisper of a mention of a solution to the real deep-rooted problems and endemic injustice. There are many possible templates for a solution to the problem, the world over, where peoples in areas colonised have won recognised self-determination rights or autonomy. But even these possibilities have never been considered by the successive governments, let alone the recognition of the real aspirations of the Tamil people for self-rule, voted for overwhelmingly way back in 1977, and again in 2004. In the latter election the Tamil people exercised their right to self- determination to take part in the then unfolding Peace Process of the early 2000s, as partners for peace.
Consider this question: Would there have been a Truth and Reconciliation process set in motion by the UN in Indonesia if East Timor had not been on the pathway to becoming independent? Can you imagine the whole of the East Timorese liberation movement massacred, followed by the instigation of a Truth and Reconciliation Commission, working with Indonesians and the remaining East Timorese people – insisting they be called Indonesians! This is pure fantasy.
We need to look reality in the face. Call a spade a spade. Call genocide, genocide. This is the only way forward. Then stop the oppression. Solutions, – internal self-determination, external self-determination, autonomous regions, cantons like in Switzerland, devolved power through regional states like in India, or USA, and these are just a few solutions. There are many more possibilities.
But while the government is made up of a Sinhalese people the majority of whom have been fed since 1930s with a racist ideology of Sinhala chauvinism, in other words, ideas of superiority of the Sinhalese who can with impunity oppress Tamils, and any other non-Buddhist people – there is no hope that the tweaks and cosmetic fixes that the new President and interim government speak about, will produce any meaningful change.
A paradigm shift is needed.
Constructive and genuine work for Human Rights – both civil and political rights and economic, social and cultural rights, will lead to solutions. Blindfolds need to be removed, to enable clear vision, and real freedom must be sought for all the people of the island.
*Deirdre McConnell – the author of “The Tamil People’s Rights to self-Determination” published in the Cambridge Review of International Affairs