By Kusal Perera –
I was born to independent “Ceylon”. Never ever migrated to any country and never lived outside this country, even for a short spell. Now I sit reading about last minute preparations for the 65th Independence Day celebrations of “Sri Lanka”. This time in the Eastern port city of Trincomalee. Looking back, I wonder if this is the same country, we grew up in.
In early post independent Ceylon, we went to school, played and fought together while growing up together, with Susils and Upuls, Sivams and Eswarans, Brians and Marios. Didn’t bother which language one spoke and what temple, kovil or church the other went to. I was admitted to Greenlands College, down Greenlands Road adjoining Havelock Park, but left Isipathana Maha Vidyalaya, on Isipathana Mawatha, now adjoining Sir Henry Pedris Udyanaya. Yet, I never changed schools.
While in primary school, we were rushed home once through Galle Road, with burning boutiques and goons going down lanes, leaving houses going up in smoke. Next morning we woke up to see the military patrolling our road, while two small khaki tents were being erected in the esplanade, next to our lane. Still growing up together as before, we did not notice “Allan Avenue” becoming “Dharmapala Mawatha”, some who wore white drill long trousers, changing to white poplin “redda – baniyama” called the “national” dress and vehicle number plates changing from “EY” and “EN” to “1 Sri” to “2 Sri” and then to “3 Sri”.
It took a little longer to understand what all that meant to post independent Ceylon, later turned into the “independent and sovereign” State called, Republic of Sri Lanka. It took even longer time to understand, what it would all mean for present day little kids, Sinhala, Tamil or Muslim (no more Burghers here) who would not know how rich a kid’s life is, playing and growing together in a tri lingual, multi religious and multi cultural neighbourhood. A dynamic milieu that does not stop to question diversity but moves along, living the benefits of that diverse milieu. One that allows a larger life than what their young parents would applaud for, when President Rajapaksa promises “post war” comfort without “terrorism”, from the independence day podium in Trincomalee, celebrating 65 years of independence from British colonial rule.
We’ve not gained anything better or more, than what was offered to us as “independence”. Sixty five years ago, the first elected government, hastily moved to disfranchise over half a million people from a population of almost 07 million. The single, largest contributor to our economy, made “Stateless” overnight on a soil, they were required to toil for a measly daily wage to eke out a living, but contribute as before to an economy of a country, they were aliens to. Fifty seven years ago, from a total population of about 8.5 million, around 2.6 million were dislodged from the State and its effective functions, with Sinhala language made the ONLY official language of the State.
With two gaping holes made in the fabric of our society within 08 years from Independence, the majority Sinhala constituency travelled along regardless. We’ve now come to what is called a “post war” era. Sinhala extremism wanted to believe and they learnt to believe, the LTTE could only be defeated militarily. Theorists for this ‘Sinhala school of thought’ argued, no political solution could be negotiated, with the LTTE around. Therefore, no social mindset was allowed in the Sinhala South that would accommodate a political solution and that to be negotiated. It was all “gung ho” for a war, its brutality never talked of. Yet, this post war era, is not what the Sinhala majority said it would be, after the “Tamil Tigers” are defeated.
The LTTE was not seen and accepted as the outgrowth of “majoritarian extremism” that sabotaged the political compromise for independence, 65 years ago. The list of broken promises and agreements, marginalising from the State that was taken over by Sinhala political extremism, communal thuggery let loose on life, repression ordered against Tamil civil rights campaigns, a long history of almost two and a half decades of political uprooting till the 1972 Republican Constitution, was comfortably forgotten as the ground which created and nurtured the radicalising of Tamil politics and its transformation from democratic agitations to armed insurgency.
The period from there to the next “Republican Constitution” in 1978 with an Executive Presidency, made it far worse. With an unprecedented majority in the history of post independent parliamentary elections that in 1977 gave President Jayawardne 140 MPs in a 168 seat parliament, 1983 was turned Black, with politically jealous scheming, after the referendum in December 1982 that postponed elections for six more years.
There was nothing spontaneous in that July pogrom against Tamil people. Hardly a fortnight before the pogrom, President Jayawardne was quoted by Ian Ward in the “London Daily Telegraph” of 11 July as saying, “… I am not worried about the opinion of the Jaffna people now… Now we cannot think of them. Not about their lives or of their opinion about us… The more you put pressure in the north, the happier the Sinhala people will be here… really, if I starve the Tamils out, the Sinhala people will be happy…”
After the pogrom that devastated the lives of many thousand Tamil people and the reputation of Sinhala Buddhists as compassionate and hospitable set of people, Gamini Dissanayake, Minister of Land and Land Development and also the President of the Lanka Jathika Estate
Workers’ Union, told its Ex-co on 05 September the same year, “….We have decided to colonise four districts including Mannar with Sinhalese people by destroying forests. A majority of Sinhalese will be settled there. If you like you also can migrate there.” [“Sri Lanka: the story of the holocaust.” N. Shanmugathasan. (1984). p.74]
This war by the Rajapaksas was ideologically and politically the continuation of President Jayawardne’s Sinhala supremacist approach to the Tamil political conflict. If it wasn’t for such powerful executive power with overall control over a huge majority in parliament, Jayawardne would not have treaded such a blatantly racist path. Almost a quarter century later, it was that same executive power in the hands of President Rajapaksa and a far more subordinate parliament, which helped the war and then helps everything else that comes after war. Everything the Sinhala South thought would not be their lot in post war Sri Lanka, is now theirs to stay.
The war has only made the Rajapaksas “great”. Its euphoria, hyped and cultivated by the Rajapaksa regime helped it to shelve the 17 Amendment and install the 18 Amendment to the Constitution. That left two major aberrations. One, a totally politicised State allowing for politically calculated heavy corruption and two, a presidency that now can be extended to unlimited terms. Such heavy usurping and accruing of political power, has been used to militarise the Tamil North and politicise the Sinhala village. Most violence and crimes in Sinhala rural life thus have two very conspicuous factors. One, the ruling political party agents like Pradeshiya Sabha members and organisers committing most crimes and two, the war making weapons available in plenty, for easy money. A reflection of total breakdown of law and order in a heavily corrupt society, contradicting the post war expectations of the Sinhala people.
With such arrogant and corrupt power, this regime is on no road to economic stability and growth. Numericals arranged in glittering formations to the liking of the Central Bank boss does not say how the people live in this economy. Its the Census & Statistics Department that would tell one, the minimum monthly cost required for a family of four to just “exist” with bare minimum necessities and food that provides the minimum calories necessary. The latest available “Survey on Household Incomes & Expenditures – 2009/2010” by the C&S department reveals, the monthly cost of food alone for a family in Colombo district as Rs. 16,121 and the same in Jaffna district as Rs. 14,878. That gives an average of Rs. 15,500 as necessary for food alone which is said to be only 35% of the family requirement for a whole month. Thus the minimum “living cost” in SL in 2010 at an average was Rs. 44,500. With an inflation of 9.8 percent recorded this January, any family would now need a minimum “living cost” of Rs.50,000 per month and going up.
Nothing more needs to be said about this economy, which is being plundered right royally. IMF has never helped any country to get back to saner economic management and out of catastrophe. The next negotiated IMF loan by this Rajapaksa regime would therefore not help the SL people. It may help this regime to hold on to a declining economy managed by wholly corrupt men in right places, in a fast collapsing law and order situation. The North and Tamil life is being finely meshed in, within military control. President’s own LLRC Recommendations are rubbished by a military report on war. But, the usual ploy in hoisting a demon in waiting at the Sinhala gate, this time “Halal” and the Muslims, would not work as the previous demon did. Legitimising a rogue organisation by giving them an audience at Temple Trees, would not also work that fast and that surreptitiously.
For a person with over 04 decades of popular politics in him, no expert is necessary to tell him, its now time to tighten the screws on every aspect of decent human living. The apex Courts thus came under the Rajapaksa regime with an impeachment in parliament ousting the 43rd Chief Justice (CJ) to install a much corroded personality as the 44th CJ. If, yes IF, the tide goes beyond that of a normal swell, the Rajapaksas are now all set to drive the last nail on a fast decaying democratic life. The elections, one to elect the next parliament is at stake and would stand threatened, with a CJ who would interpret the Constitution without any bias to the people.
What and where could the answer be ? The alternative ? The two main players to date, those who have been working hard with the International Community (IC) and those in the Sinhala Opposition working hard to out do Rajapaksa as a Sinhala leader, would never help produce an alternative to Rajapaksa. The IC would not go beyond a carefully worded statement that could satisfy their own pressure groups and human rights lobbies. Next March and the UNHRC would once again extend its right to review SL, till the next UNHRC. May be with another resolution and their HR lobbies told, all’s under control. The Rajapaksas would tell their Sinhala constituency the same. All’s under control. IC is now well understood by President Rajapaksa as a spent cartridge. With the other player, none could outfox a scheming Sinhala leader holding onto power, from the Opposition that does not even have Sinhala trader backing. But, that said, lets not forget, with Rajapaksas working overtime to drive the final nail on the coffin of democratic and economic life in this country, that is what allows for an alternative to be debated within that brewing political crisis. Sixty five years after independence, that could be the Rajapaksa contribution, in getting out of a total mess.
Human societies just don’t give in. There is always a fight back, I believe, for the better.