Colombo Telegraph

Five Years On, What Have We Got Here?

By Laksiri Fernando

Dr. Laksiri Fernando

I write this with mixed feelings, believing in some opportunities and mindful of enormous problems or difficulties. Five years on, the problems have enlarged and the opportunities dwindled. Yet, as a perennial optimist, I stick to the opportunities perhaps as the last straws. Let me begin with by commenting on the termination of the war in May 2009, as it is from that lamppost that we count the five years.

On that Monday, 18th May 2009, I was at the Navy Cantonment at Wattala, conducting a session on International Human Rights and Humanitarian Law, when the news broke out of the demise of the LTTE leader and the decisive victory of the army. I was at the Officers’ Mess at lunch after the session, and the reception to the news among the navy officers were calm, somber and of a matter of fact nature. There was no overt jubilation which I admired as an academic.

On my way back to Colombo, the situation was different. The roads were almost impassable, people dancing and parading with banners, and fire crackers were all over the place. There were symptoms of an ‘ethnic victory’ although no one was harmed, a sentiment which became eventually enlarged as the months and years went by. It is this sentiment and trend that the extremists have utilized during the last five years to the maximum and the government has willingly succumbed to.

There was reason to be happy or even jubilant given the hardships and difficulties that the ordinary people had to go through, not to speak of the heinous crimes of terrorism. It is possible that even the Tamils in the North also felt the same or at least a sigh of relief. I had a senior Tamil female officer on my staff and she or her family was never near any admirers of the LTTE politics. She was relieved at the beginning, but as the days went by she became worried and withdrawn perhaps feeling insecure within an increasing atmosphere of Sinhala triumphalism. I am not sure to what extent that triumphalism manifested within the organization that I was heading (and responsible). She prematurely retired, on which I was not in a position to do anything given the issues and circumstances.

The above is an impressionistic or experiential introduction to what I am going to write on briefly.

Was there any possibility of Sri Lanka evolving differently after May 2009? Yes, there was in my opinion, at least to the extent of fifty-fifty. History sometimes determined by few personalities or few events. If the President and the government followed what the President stated in his ‘victory speech’ in Parliament on 19 May 2009 and what he agreed with the UN Secretary General a week later, or consistently followed what was outlined in the Mahinda Chinthana 2005 (and not 2010), the situation in Sri Lanka would have been different.

What was necessary was reconciliation with accountability and resurrection of democracy. If a long term political settlement was difficult, a political understanding could have been reached with the TNA to normalize the North. The immediate establishment of the NPC was imperative like in the East.

But the things didn’t happen that way. Perhaps the victory in the UNHRC gave the hawks an undue confidence. The rigid attitude of the West pushed the regime to the wall on war crime charges. The split between the regime and the (former) Army Commander by the end of the year placed the regime to rely more and more on the armed forces and/or the Defense Establishment. Chauvinist partners within the UPFA, the JHU and the NFF, became more influential in comparison to the Left or the moderates. The propensity of the SLFP to fall back on Sinhala chauvinism was always high. The CBK period was quite an exception and there was a contrast between CBK and MR on the Tamil or the minority question.

When the regime emerged after the two elections in 2010 it was different. The new Mahinda Chinthana 2010 was different. It talked about Buddhism as the ‘state religion’ although many would not have noticed it. It completely dropped the previous promise to abolish the presidential system. It was ambiguous and lukewarm on the provincial council system and devolution. There was no firm program for reconciliation. Instead, all assurances were placed on economic development but without democracy.

Economic progress undoubtedly is the main strength of the present regime. Simply to deny that is self-deception. Anyone to match should come up with a similar or an alternative program. Its success is not merely an internal story but an external one largely linked to Chinese assistance. Sri Lanka’s move away from India towards China has also been a part of this story.

Has there been culpability on the part of the Tamil constituencies for the sorry state of the country or the ethnic relations after the war? Yes, there has been in my opinion. Tamil nationalism still appears to base itself on the ideology of separatism and self-determination. This is more prominent within the Diaspora but no less within the local actors. It is not merely a reaction to the majority domination and chauvinism but an orientation within the elite thinking for a long period.

There has been an exclusive thinking, a failure to accommodate or compromise except at certain junctures. The claim of two provinces for a separate state or even for exclusive devolution is unreasonable and untenable. In 1949, the Federal party was formed on the issue discrimination against the hill country Tamils, but failed to consider them as one of their people or constituency. On the issues of the Muslims it was more or less the same. It was very difficult for the Tamil nationalism to take the moral high ground against Sinhala nationalism or chauvinism under the circumstances.

There is no question that the major responsibility for the national conundrum would rely on the majority community and particularly on the state that they control or manipulate. It is difficult to believe that any progress on reconciliation would emerge under the present regime. Its present effort is to assimilate and not reconcile or integrate. This is unreasonable and untenable.

It is not only the unresolved national question that we have got after five years. The regime has destroyed and destroying the rule of law, independence of the Judiciary and curtail the freedoms of expression and religion. There are all hallmarks of a totalitarian regime. The 18th Amendment has been a watershed in this direction, the full implications of which people have not yet grasped or not yet clear. There is a mammoth task of educating the people and organizing them on such issues. The economy has progressed overtly, yet discriminately, creating new deprived sections and major income disparities.

The opposition has not yet tapped these opportunities for its benefit. Corruption has thrived with development, creating a new class of politically rich. They should be exposed along with corruption. Casino issue reveals the nature of economic development that Rajapaksas are relying on. It is a potential issue for the opposition, even good enough to oust a government if properly utilized.

Within the ruling UPFA, the traditional SLFPers are effectively marginalized, monopolizing the decision making apparatus by the family cabal. There is every reason to split/save the SLFP from this sad situation. The CBK should speak up and speak up decisively on these issues.

What a democratic opposition could effectively do to curtail adverse policies of a regressive government is amply demonstrated by what is unravelling in Australia just now, as I write this, against the Abbot-Hokey budget. In Sri Lanka more forthright mobilizations may be necessary. In Australia, the campaigning includes TV talk shows, paid advertisements, continuous press statements, public meetings, demonstrations and protests and the full utilization of the social media (email, numerous blogs, Twitter, Facebook etc.). Isn’t that the way even Narendra Modi and the BJP won the Indian elections?

In Sri Lanka more creative devices may be necessary but peacefully through democratic means and without indulging in unethical practices such as gossip or lies. A viable opposition should take a moral high ground.

It is not only the Tamils and the (religious) minorities that are at the receiving end under the present regime. In the North, the opposition and the resentment is obvious and overt, but not so in the South. In the North, the opposition is apparently going in the wrong direction which needs to be soon corrected. In the South, the opposition is incipient and weak but it could be resurrected if concerted and non-sectarian efforts are made.

Tamil support is needed to resurrect democracy in the country. This is rather an appeal. They are part and parcel of the common citizenry. They should feel and act that way whatever the odds. What we face against injustice, discrimination and repression is ultimately a common cause transcending ethnicity and religion. That common cause is also one way of resolving the national question amicably and eventually.

Accountability is important in respect of what happened in particularly at the last stages of the war and even thereafter. The existing military rule in the North should end and the civil administration should be reinstated. The role of the opposition in the South should be crystal clear on this issue. However, complete reliance on the UNHRC inquiry on war crimes would be illusory for the Tamil people. It would probably turn out to be another UN report, in my opinion, at best some countries imposing travel restrictions on some perpetrators identified.

In politics some opportunities or chance breakthroughs are necessary for political change. The BJP landslide victory might bring them in some ‘unexpected ways.’ Why unexpected ways?

The ‘expected’ outcome of the Indian elections was or is predicted as Delhi supporting the UNHRC inquiry and taking the Rajapaksas to The Hague under the influence or pressure of Tamil Nadu. There was also hope that then the Tamils could go for a referendum for a separate state. It would simply not happen. Even Delhi might scuttle the UNHRC inquiry in a subtle manner. This is India’s sphere of influence. Delhi is no longer under the influence of Tamil Nadu. The rift between Modi and Jayalalitha at the last stages of the election campaign was symptomatic.

Even new Delhi might support Rajapaksa on the UNHRC issue. But it will strongly negotiate on the Tamil fishermen’s issue with Colombo. It will patronize Colombo but ask the regime to withdraw or minimize army/navy in the North and implement the 13th Amendment. What will result are frictions and disorientations within the regime in Colombo. The Cabinet will split on the issue of India. The government will be weaken. These are the opportunities that the opposition has to utilize delicately to effect political change in the country for reconciliation, democracy and development in the country. I may be wrong, but above is my reading of the evolving scenario in the coming future.

If I may pontificate a little, don’t rely on external factors too much. Read them carefully, utilize them, but rely on internal alliances and forces. At least that is what might be sustainable. We may have to live in this small Island for a very longtime or forever.

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