By Dayan Jayatilleka –
“…namely, the freedom to use reason publicly in all matters…” — Immanuel Kant
Throughout decades of conflict, the Sri Lanka state never moved against an elected Mayor of Jaffna, or indeed, of any city or town in the North and East. It never laid a hand on a Mayor nor arrested a single one.
During the LTTE’s offensive which took Elephant Pass, it was easier for the State to retain Jaffna, also because Douglas Devananda’s EPDP had won many municipalities. More Tamil civilians moved into state-controlled areas than flowed out of them, during the Tiger offensive of 2000.
Today, there is an ironic inversion. The state’s Terrorism Investigation Division (TID) has arrested under the PTA, the young Mayor of Jaffna, Viswalingam Manivannan. He is not charged with anything remotely forceful, let alone violent, and least of all terrorist. He has not been discovered with explosives in his back office. He is supposed to have authorized the setting up of a unit attached to the Jaffna Municipal Council, wearing uniforms which bore a semblance to those worn by the illegal LTTE Police. Going by the photographs there are no militaristic or militant symbols on the uniforms.
If no other Municipal Council in Sri Lanka has such employees, or rather, employees so clad, then surely it is a matter for the Minister in charge of Local Authorities to have a word with the young Mayor of Jaffna or send him an official letter of caution of the matter. Instead, he has been arrested, under the draconian PTA at that.
Throughout the world, one of the basics of de-radicalization and counter-radicalization strategies is to work with the elected legislators of the areas in which the disaffected population lives. This is especially so at the level of the mayors, because the mayoralties are the units through which services are channeled. Even in Israel, the authorities cultivate good relations with Palestinian mayors.
Obviously, not so, or no longer so, under the Gotabaya government. The universal manuals on prevention of radicalization are being torn up and re-written. Exactly the moves that are recommended against, are being used here and now, for the first time ever.
The sudden arrest of the Mayor of Jaffna undermines the argument, not of the liberals or moderates, but precisely the ultra-nationalists in the Gotabaya administration. Their point is that the unit of devolution should not be the province but a smaller one such as the district or the Pradesheeya Sabha, which is closest to the grassroots and can be a better delivery vehicle for development and services.
The arrest of the Jaffna Mayor over a non-violent alleged offense, actually a procedural or regulatory one if at all, gives the signal that there will be no autonomous space for the minorities even at the level of the smallest unit, namely the municipality, let alone the province.
The arrest comes at a point where the Sri Lankan government is under global scrutiny on human rights issues. Either the Colombo authorities do not care, or they think that a telephone conversation with President Xi is sufficient to enable them to act with impunity. The US, UK, EU and UN are seen as ‘paper tigers’ who won’t, can’t, walk the talk (or stalk the growl).
The arrest also comes a few weeks before the Tamil Nadu election and cannot make political life easier for Prime Minister Modi. Obviously the Gotabaya government cares nothing about that either.
Any serious observer knows that the movement led by filmmaker and history student Seeman, an openly pro-Prabhakaran, pro-Tiger, charismatic personality, is contesting across the state. While it will not prevail, it is sufficiently significant to serve as a radical pressure group on the streets, acting upon the Tamil Nadu and Delhi administrations on the issue of Sri Lanka and Tamil rights. The arrest of the Jaffna mayor will only help Seeman’s movement and momentum. The Gotabaya government doesn’t know or care.
The arrest of a monk, a mayor and a former beauty queen, none of which seem necessary, and all of which are overreactions, indicate that the threshold of tolerance is very low. The shrinkage of civic space that the UN Human Rights High Commissioner cautioned about seems to be a prophecy coming true.
It is illogical to believe that a regime which behaves in this manner now, will accept electoral defeat in 2024/5. It is far more likely to try a Myanmar model.
What we are witnessing now are the first signs and symptoms. Myanmarization may be underway. Sri Lanka will get there not with a bang as in Myanmar, but by gradual, incremental moves such as which we are witnessing, i.e., by stealth.
As Hannah Arendt once said somewhere, we sometimes cross invisible lines in History and are unaware about it until we look back and find they have grown into walls behind us.
Myanmar is to the 21st century what Spain was to the pre-WWII world in the 1930s. If President Biden is serious about a global ‘Alliance of Democracies’, its immediate objective must be ‘No More Myanmars!’ and such an Alliance must develop its own Charter and systems to defend democracy and prevent another Myanmar.
The Sri Lankan political parties, right, left and center, are all operating within a paradigm of an electoral endgame. They may be wrong. There may be those who are already considering, even planning for a non-electoral, extra-electoral endgame, with or without the stepping stone of a new, dictatorial Constitution using the ‘Sinhala-Buddhist State’ brand to secure acceptance at a referendum.
The structures and networks, national, local and global; South and North; must be created to pre-empt a Myanmar outcome, to secure an electoral endgame and the level playing field, and most importantly, to secure the respect of the outcome of that electoral endgame unlike in Myanmar.
As the Myanmar resistance is finding out, the unity of the democratic forces of the ethnoreligious majority and the anti-dictatorship forces of the ethnoreligious minorities, is an imperative.
The Sri Lankan democratic political parties, mainly the Opposition parties, and chiefly the parties of the left, must learn, internalize and apply the lessons of History of the struggle against autocracy throughout the world:
1. United Fronts and Coordinating Committees at the political and social movement levels are imperative.
2. The broadest international solidarity in support of democracy and against ultranationalist autocracy is imperative.
3. ‘When all the conditions are ripe to resist dictatorship, it is already too late to prepare to do so’.
*Dr. Jayatilleka is a former Vice-President of the United Nations Human Rights Council and a former Chairperson of the ILO.