By Kumar David –
One swallow does not a summer make, but then a swallow is a swallow (no pun intended). At last the PM lashed out in Parliament on 28 January; he should have done it long ago but one has to be thankful that he did take a stand. Will he keep it up? Indications are encouraging; Galagoda Atte Gnanasara Thero and Yoshitha Rajapaksa are cooling their backsides in the lock up (for a week or two at least), Wasim Thajudeen’s murders may soon be arrested. The national anthem was performed in Tamil at the formal Independence Day celebrations for the first time in 66 years. and the PM says he will stand by Lanka’s commitments to the UNHRC (implied, notwithstanding President Sirisena’s contortions).
Now don’t get me wrong! Neither a PM nor anyone in any country can, single-handed, rout racism or fascism. That task, dear friends, is the duty of you and me and all of us. And who is this ‘us’? Democrats, liberals, militant leftists with an ember or two still burning in their belly, working or middle-class, or dammit even true bourgeois? There is little that Ranil or his great-grandmother can do to save us from misfortune worse than hell, unless we the people stand up and fight. Protecting freedoms is incumbent on the people themselves – I guess Thomas Jefferson and other quotable guys said all this centuries ago. The more jaded, the truer!
There are two reasons why this has more than a platitudinous ring at this conjuncture; one is to do with generations of racism, bigotry, chauvinism, call it what you will, in Lanka; the second is how steadfast the military’s loyalty to constitution and supremacy of the civilian is, and how sincere its commitment to human rights. These two matters need carefully reflection.
Racism has come a circle
Racism has come a full circle in the last two and a half generations and the opportunity is now ripe to smash it once and for all. This is not 1947-48 when the upcountry Tamils were ground into the dust, nor 1958 or 1965 when spineless prime ministers reneged on the B-C and Dudly-Chelva Pacts, nor is it Emergency-58, nor 1983 nor 1987. There was also the other watershed in 2009 when Tamil separatism was wiped out and mass Sinhala psychology relaxed.
My assertion is that times have progressed and Sinhala chauvinism is not the power it was from the 1950s to the end of the civil-war. In the aftermath of war victory there was a triumphal upsurge, but this has waned; the quotidian imperative has past and what is called the more deep rooted Mahavamsa ideology has little hold on the minds of 21-st Century young people. I was pleased to hear the PM challenge the racists to bring their mobs on to the streets and promised to respond with 100 for every one they mobilised. Had NM, Colvin, Peiter or Dr SA Wicks been alive would they not have been in an anti-racist, anti-fascist united front with Ranil?
The forces that can be mobilised to crush race mobs on the streets today are far stronger than in 1958, 1965 or 1983. The PM’s hard hitting line is welcome, but this is not what I am driving at. My case is that social forces at the grassroots level have evolved. Mafia-like brigandage of the Rajapaksas has helped generate revulsion against louts in yellow robes (I will not hurt my Buddhist friends by calling them monks) who indulge in anti-Muslim or anti-Tamil obscenity “to save Sinhala-Buddhism from halal eaters, or to protect the army from imperialist orchestrated war-crimes probes”. Let me rub it in again; Sinhala chauvinism is no longer the all powerful social and political force it used to be.
The balance of forces has changed in another way as well. Ranged against chauvinism is the united anger of all the country’s minorities. Colombo based ‘Jaffna’ Tamils are somewhat cowardly, but the Muslim population is young and will not stand for insult and injury. Upcountry Tamils voted to a man against Rajapaksa and those of that community settled in the Colombo and the cities are prepared to root out chauvinism. The race-hate instigators in the SLFP’s Mahinda faction, as well as Wimal, Gamanpila, Dinesh and even, what a pity Vasu, know the cards are stacked against them and refrain from stirring up riots. It takes only one firm response to drive cowards off the streets forever.
For three generations this nation has been drenched in the gangrene of racism. An opportunity has come, that comes but rarely in the life of nations, to extinguish the pestilence. Class collaboration, socio-economic compromise and foreign meddling to a degree, are a price worth paying to exorcise this evil. We may be on the cusp of a wave, let us not miss it. I said ‘may’, but we must push if we want to make history. Push, and encourage and watch purported anti-racists in government.
Furthermore, the international climate is far different from decades ago. The age of national sovereignty is long gone, everywhere, Middle East, South East or South Asia. There will be ample support from India and the West to deal with rampaging race mobs or conspirators in the military. Beijing you will note did not shed half a tear over the demise of the Rajapaksa mafia.
The PM’s Achilles’ heel
The danger point in the event of riot and civil commotion is the military. Putting out a military that has not been thoroughly re-educated and whose officer corps may still retain Gota loyalists biding their time, is unsafe. It is tactically tricky to quickly cleanse the officer corps except in revolutionary upheavals, and re-educating the rank and file into unquestioning loyalty to the constitution, accepting the supremacy of the elected civilian government and respect for ethnic and religious pluralism, takes time. In any case with other problems on its hands I doubt if the PM and progressive sections of the government have the energy for this. This is the reason why I have several times in this column advocated mass mobilisation rather than reliance on the armed forces as the better way to remove putative race rioters from the streets.
Instigation of racial and more frequently anti-Muslim disturbances has so far been on a small scale and the police have been able to deal with them. The police force, mercifully, is not as tainted by human-rights abuses as much as the military, and fortunately its 80,000 men and women are enough to deal with individual or sporadic incidents. The force conducted itself in a way that restored public confidence during the January and August elections. A senior officer has been convicted of murder and others are facing charges for corruption; there has been spring cleaning. Nevertheless the IGP and his senior staff have their work cut out in polishing up the force for what may be difficult times ahead when ratification of the new constitution and work the UNHRC mandated inquiry begin. A decent police force and mobilisation of the democratic masses is adequate to subdue enervated chauvinists if and when they dare venture out to arson, loot or worse.
The PM and the President
Although the PM is the more influential source of power the residual powers of the President ain’t nothing. I initiated the “Single Issue” idea (abolish the Executive Presidency) and despite leaders like Sobitha Thero mobilising for it, the 20-th Amendment went only halfway. The President retains some real (not merely formal) power and in particular retains control of the armed forces. In the context of my previous paragraph about the military, clearly the compromisers blundered when they forced more clear headed constitutionalists like Jayampathy to accept it. The President can call out the troops, but when there is disorder won’t Gota, Mahinda and their ilk gamble desperately and conspire with a surviving loyalist rump to change the direction in which the guns point? The PM’s Collective Agreement a few days ago with former army commander Sarath Fonseka’s party, and the latter’s possible inclusion in Cabinet at a future date therefore make sense.
Political stability is more important than this military technicality and in post January 8 Lanka this depends on a crucial link: The rapport between Ranil Wickremesinghe and Maithripala Sirisena must be sheltered. Anything that undermines this plays into the hands of the hounds of hell salivating outside. Both are aware of the importance of the alliance, not just for themselves personally, but for the country at large. Should this government collapse at this time all hell will break loose; that I am sure is a fact that cannot be contested.
It seems that the most serious point of contention at this juncture is whether the Resolution jointly sponsored by Sri Lanka and others at the UNHRC last fall will be strictly adhered to. In some pronouncements President Sirisena seems to renege on his government’s pledges and at times the PM seems embarrassed to repudiate the President. This dilemma must be resolved but do you have a sneaking suspicion that PM and President are gaming? You play good cop, I play bad cop; Sirisena is good cop at home and bad cop to the outside world, Ranil reverses the roles. Is this by mutual agreement? I have no idea, but if that be the case maybe we can relax and Sri Lanka, as usual, will muddle through.
Or perhaps the calculation is this – who knows? It is not possible to both punish the military for war crimes and grant powers (devolution though not in name) to the Tamil provinces at the same time. The double portion may be too much for even enervated Sinhala chauvinism to stomach. So is the calculation this? Get the constitutional bit done, but let the dead bury their dead. If that’s the deal, what will the Tamils say? I don’t know; I am not in a position to speak for them.