By Dharisha Bastians –
“It took a man like Madiba to free not just the prisoner, but the jailer as well” – US President Barack Obama
The Sri Lankan Government is taking some aspects of its role a Chair in Office of the Commonwealth of Nations very seriously.
President Mahinda Rajapaksa for instance, embracing his dual role as President of the Republic and Commonwealth Chair, issued not one but two messages of condolence to South African President Jacob Zuma on the passing of the world’s most beloved statesman and freedom fighter, Nelson Mandela. The first message was a short, official communiqué, released by President Rajapaksa in his capacity as Chair of the Commonwealth. In the second more personalised note to President Zuma, the Sri Lankan President eulogised Mandela as a profound icon of peace and a beacon of light for freedom. Mandela’s life and philosophy, the President said, have deeply inspired him. “I consider President Mandela’s demise a great loss to me, personally,” his message read.
Going one step further, the Rajapaksa administration declared 10 and 11 December national days of mourning for the South African Leader. On Tuesday (10), the President’s social media team tweeted pictures of the national flag flying at half-mast at the Presidential Secretariat, the iconic Galle Face building that housed the country’s first Parliament. The President himself would join nearly 100 other world leaders at the Johannesburg Stadium for Mandela’s memorial service en route to Kenya on an official visit. Amid the sea of dark suits in the VIP seating area President Rajapaksa’s staple white national dress and burgundy shawl was conspicuous in photographs of the stadium.
For a ruling regime that could not be more at odds with Mandela’s philosophies of peace, reconciliation and forgiveness, the symbolic fuss over his passing is not merely excessive. It was practically oxymoronic.
The Government announced a condolence debate in Parliament only one day after Mandela’s death, seemingly in an inordinate hurry and breaking with the tradition of holding condolence votes after funeral proceedings. The debate took place with few opposition members present in Parliament on Saturday (7), many of them but the most experienced legislators prepared to pay tribute to the iconic anti-Apartheid activist. Those Government MPs that did, like Leader of the House Nimal Siripala De Silva, hailed Mandela’s struggle to liberate the Black people of South Africa from oppressive Apartheid rule and his efforts to bridge the gap between communities of people in that country as its first post-Apartheid President.
Ironically, it was the same day that UPFA National List Parliamentarian, the 85 year old J.R.P. Suriyapperuma chose to hit out against world leaders in profoundly disparaging terms. As the House mourned Mandela, Suriyapperuma called Barack Obama, America’s first African American President a ‘kalla’ the Sinhala colloquialism meaning ‘negro’ or ‘nigger’, a racial slur that is no longer used in civilised parlance. Obama was a ‘kalla’, whose “skull would soon be smashed” by the joint powers of Russia and China, the ruling party MP said. Suriyapperuma’s evocation of vicious hate crimes against coloured people in Apartheid South Africa and the United States before the enactment of the Civil Rights Act of 1968 may have been accidental, but the imagery was poignant nonetheless.
The UPFA MP did not reserve the racial contempt for foreigners alone. Opposition Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe was also treated to the vicious side of the elderly Parliamentarian’s tongue. Suriyapperuma told the Legislature that Ranil Wickremesinghe had thala-thel or gingerly oil running in his veins. The remark could be construed as deeply offensive not only to Wickremesinghe, but the dozens of Tamil legislators sitting on both the Government and Opposition benches of Parliament. The Tamil community both in Sri Lanka and South India uses gingerly or sesame oil widely in their cooking and religious offerings.
In Parliament on Saturday, the Sunday Times reports that not a single Government Minister or senior MP saw fit to rebuke Suriyapperuma for his remarks or at least distance the ruling administration from the offensive diatribe. The Government has yet to disown or apologise for Suriyapperuma’s boorish language or hold the Parliamentarian to account. Distressingly, Suriyapperuma is a National List MP, an unelected individual handpicked by the ruling coalition headed by President Rajapaksa, to add value to its ranks. It is almost certain that the official government spokesmen, if asked to comment on Suriyapperuma’s racial outburst, will smile benignly and say: ‘Sri Lanka is a democracy, and that is his personal opinion.’ Democracy, Sri Lankans have found in recent times, is always flourishing whenever Government members or their proxies launch invective or physical attacks on critics of the regime. Nurtured at the regime’s highest levels, intolerance and hate speech against minority communities has become so commonplace in Sri Lanka’s post-war context that Suriyapperuma’s outburst which may once have made much of the nation blush, barely caused a ripple last week.
Less than 48 hours after Suriyapperuma denigrated President Obama, a self-confessed beneficiary of Mandela’s struggle against Apartheid, President Rajapaksa jetted off to Johannesburg to attend the former South African President’s memorial service. The same President who remained silent when members of his Governing coalition called UN Human Rights Chief Navi Pillay’s husband a terrorist because he was imprisoned alongside Mandela for challenging South Africa’s Apartheid regime, had travelled to Johannesburg to celebrate Madiba’s life and work and to hear him hailed as the greatest liberator of the 20th Century.
Back at home, in the Eastern Province families of the disappeared were demonstrating to mark International Human Rights Day. By accident or design, Mandela’s five hour memorial service had coincided with the international day to celebrate and promote human rights. Masked men attacked the demonstrators at the Trincomalee bus stand, according to Tamil media reports, and demanded that the protestors take their demonstration to Jaffna. “The East is ours,” the attackers reportedly told demonstrators. The organiser of the protest Sundaram Mahendran was injured in the attack and hospitalised later on Tuesday. After the Bodu Bala Sena-TID joint ambush of the Human Rights Festival organised by the Samagi Movement at Sirikotha during the Commonwealth Summit last month, there was a marked absence of commemorative human rights events in Colombo on Tuesday. But blacked out by much of the Sinhala and English language press and therefore unbeknownst to a majority of Sri Lankans still unaccustomed to obtaining their information from the more daring online sources, the continued oppression and erosion of citizens’ rights in parts of the Northern and Eastern Provinces continues unabated. Last week, the demolition of sacred Hindu temples inside the former High Security Zones in Valikamam North created new rifts between the new Northern Provincial Council and the Province’s military administration. The ongoing demolition of partially damaged houses in the area acquired by the army, now being contested in court by more than 2000 petitioners claiming legal ownership of the massive swathes of land, had already become a sticking point in October. Last week upon hearing that the Hindu temples in the area were being demolished Northern Chief Minister and former Supreme Court Justice C.V. Wigneswaran attempted to gain access to the area to assess the facts of the situation himself. The Chief Minister was barred entry into the fenced area by military officials, even though as the Province’s highest elected official, Wigneswaran effectively outranks the area’s top commanders. The snub resulted in Tamil National Alliance Leader R. Sampanthan telephoning President Rajapaksa to outline the latest situation in Valikamam. Previously Sampanthan had spoken to the President regarding the ongoing military demolition of residences in the area despite the matter pending before the courts. Presidential Secretary Lalith Weeratunge called Sampanthan back on that occasion to inform him that the President had issued orders that the demolitions cease. But they re-commenced a few days later. Confronted with the issue of the Hindu temples being destroyed, an issue of grave sensitivity for Hindu devotees of the area, the President once again assured the TNA Leader he would look into the matter. But in the heavily garrisoned Northern Province at least, it appears President Rajapaksa does not quite call the shots. Powerful sections of the Rajapaksa administration remain deeply suspicious of the Tamil people and determined to stamp the military’s authority over the Tamil dominated former battlefields of the North.
In terms of addressing serious human rights concerns, grave allegations of abuses against sections of its own citizenry and making concessions towards the ‘liberated’ Tamil community therefore, the regime remains as immovable and as far removed from the Mandela ideal of post-conflict healing and reconciliation as ever. It is not clear then, whether the outpouring of national grief over the passing of Nelson Mandela is motivated instead by the need to keep the Commonwealth flag flying during Sri Lanka’s chairmanship. The Commonwealth formed a strong, early relationship with South Africa’s anti-Apartheid movement and the organisation believes the positions it took on the issue since the 1960s embody its commitment to upholding democracy and dignity of life for all global citizens. The importance of Jacob Zuma, South Africa’s beleaguered incumbent President, to begin the discussion with the Sri Lankan Government on an elusive Truth and Reconciliation Commission as a means to ward off pressure that will mount at the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva early next year, may also have played a role. President Zuma who is facing immense political pressure from a breakaway faction over his controversial plans to put e-tolls on Johannesburg’s motorway network and a decision to spend hundreds of millions of Rand to build his family compound in KwaZulu Natal, would at first glance have much more in common with Sri Lanka’s ruling administration than the man the Government purports to mourn. Perhaps the most honest Government voice this past week, as the flags flew at half mast at state buildings, was the state controlled press, which alluded to claims by Mandela’s detractors that the former South African leader probably ‘cut a deal’ with the white South African Apartheid regime “to be gentle with white South Africans” and owned that “there was no doubt more than a smidgen of truth to some of these allegations.”
Fortunately, the world disagrees.
Since the end of the war, the Sri Lankan experience has often been compared with that of South Africa in the post-Apartheid era. South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission was touted as the model for Sri Lanka’s own Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission; the restorative justice model has long been espoused by high officials in the ruling administration as being preferable to punitive measures following a protracted civil war. Nearly five years later, Sri Lanka is still desperately waiting for its ‘Mandela Moment.’
Since independence, no political leadership has been more uniquely positioned to clasp such a moment and take his undisputed place in history than President Mahinda Rajapaksa. When the victory was won, he had a golden opportunity to turn from hawk to peacemaker. For 30 years, LTTE terrorism had prevented the political leadership from making serious concessions to the Tamil people, for fear that those gestures would help the Tigers edge closer to the goal of separatism. With the LTTE finally resolutely defeated, President Rajapaksa could have played the magnanimous victor, addressing the ethnic question in a meaningful way, casting aside the jingoism in favour of genuine bridge building between communities that had been torn apart by war. But magnanimity was never part of his Government’s post-war agenda. Instead, fed on a steady eight year diet of militarism and triumphalism, the voices and movements of dissent and opposition all but silenced, Sri Lanka’s last liberals are running for the hills. Opposition members are terrified of decrying racism and condemning the growing anti-minority trends in the country, for fear of alienating the majority community. Allowing the ruling regime to dictate the narrative has relegated moderates to the fringes of society, a support base neither of the two major political parties any longer crave to appease. In the Sri Lankan political system, Mandela is nobody’s hero.
In the Johannesburg Stadium on Tuesday (10), there was another African liberation hero and first Black President present. The 89 year old Robert Mugabe, from neighbouring Zimbabwe has ruled his country since liberation from white rule in 1980 for 33 long years. Having led similar liberation struggles, the paths of Mugabe and Mandela diverged sharply post-liberation. For Mandela, freedom meant building his ‘rainbow nation’, healing fissures between Black and white communities, confronting an ugly past and moving forward. When Black South Africans were begging for a chance to retaliate against their oppressors, Mandela rode against the wave, and showed a more peaceful way to heal the wounds of the past. Mugabe chose a different road, one that was paved with vengeance and populism, that led to an exodus of White Rhodesians who were never welcomed in the new Zimbabwe and took with them all the economic prosperity in the former ‘bread basket’ of Southern Africa.
When liberators turn aggressor and oppressor, the future remains bleak. Nelson Mandela chose magnanimity in victory, his most enduring legacy is his ability to forgive and after 27 years of incarceration, his capacity to trust even his oppressors. His great heart liberated even those who had been the administrators and beneficiaries of an unjust system. President Obama phrased those words eloquently when he said it took a man like Madiba to free both prisoners and jailors.
Nelson Mandela is the undisputed king of reconciliation because of the choices he made at the moment of victory.
On 18May 2009, President Rajapaksa faced a choice about post-war Sri Lanka. Five years down the road, it does not appear that his choice was inspired by Nelson Mandela’s vision. That is why Sri Lankans are still weeping with uncontrollable grief in the north. That is why a Government that vanquished terrorism has the shadow of war crimes hanging over its head. Both liberated and liberator remain embroiled in a struggle to find a way to leave the conflict behind.
And that is why, five years after the humanitarian operation to liberate the country from terrorism, nobody in Sri Lanka is truly free.
*Courtesy Daily FT