By Rajan Philips –
Nine years ago, in 2004, the day after Christmas, Sri Lanka became one of the major victims of the Asian tsunami. The nature’s fury brought the best and the worst in Sri Lankan society even as it ravaged most of the island’s coastal areas. The best response was from the people who spontaneously stepped up to help one another, humanely crisscrossing ethnic boundaries, with Sinhalese soldiers rescuing Tamil and Muslim victims and Tamil LTTE rescuing Sinhalese and Muslim victims. They responded before the state could mobilize itself and before needed and unwanted foreign help arrived from far flung places. The cynics invariably called the deluge of foreign help as ‘NGO tsunami’. A very positive explanation and hopeful teaching, in my view, emanated from the pen of Rev. Dalton Forbes, Catholic Priest and scholar, and longtime professor at the Oblate Seminary in Ampitiya. Writing from a common religious standpoint, Father Forbes provided an explanation for the overlapping of the supernatural and the natural, and human interactions with both. More importantly, he dealt with interactions among Sri Lankans and their conflicts based on the false naturalizations and pseudo essentializations of their socialized and politicized differences. He raised the expectation that the tsunami aftermath could be the Tabula Rasa (black slate) on which our political leaders would write a new inclusive political charter for the future. That expectation was frustrated. Our ill-equipped leaders did not make even a semblance of effort to fulfill Forbes’s hopes. They showed the worst of Sri Lankan society.
The tsunami hit Sri Lanka towards the frustrating end of a much maligned and much abused peace process. It dramatically exposed the limitations of Sri Lankan society and polity. The articulated hopes of Father Forbes and many others, as well as the unstated desires of the silent Sri Lankans who are seen as voters but never heard as citizens, were that Sri Lanka’s political leaders and the LTTE leader would come together to lay the foundation for a more inclusive, plural and mutually reinforcing social and political order. However, they did not rise to the occasion but sank in a welter of petty egotism, devious opportunism, and juvenile grandstanding. On the one hand, Chandrika Kumaratunga, Ranil Wickremasinghe and Mahinda Rajapaksa were involved in a vicious circle of mistrust, pettiness and undercutting, while on the other hand, the LTTE leader was insistently intransigent and utterly unamenable to transforming his organization to become plural, tolerant and democratic.
It was not just the main political actors but even the supporting cast contributed to the undoing of the expectations of Father Forbes and others, and the desires of the silent majority. The Sarath Silva Court in a spate of politically motivated rulings caused the nullifications of (a) the GOSL-LTTE agreement to set up a Post-Tsunami Operational Mechanism (PTOM) in 2005; (b) the allegations of misappropriation of tsunami relief funds in the “Helping Hambantota” case against the then Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa (c) President Kumaratunga’s attempt to extend her term of office in 2005; and (d) the merger of the Northern and Eastern Provinces in 2006. The former Chief Justice has now publicly admitted that without the dismissal of the Helping Hambantota case, Mahinda Rajapaksa would not have been able to contest the 2005 Presidential election or become President of the country. With characteristic but shameful self-importance, the ex-CJ confessed that “President Rajapaksa is now able to carry out wrongful acts because of the order we delivered then.”
The court rulings on PTOMS and North-East merger legitimized the resurgence of ethno-extremism after a decade-long moderation of political discourse that began, in 1994, with the defeat of the UNP and the victory of the People’s Alliance. Even a person of the calibre of H.L. de Silva, who had earlier fought valiant judicial battles for the Civil Rights Movement, now joined forces with the purveyors of ethno-extremism to dismantle PTOMS and demerge the North-Eastern Province. He wove into his legal submissions the ludicrous argument that Tamil nationalism is illegitimate because Tamil society is divided by caste. A modicum of familiarity with the specificities of nationalism in South Asia would have showed the great legal luminary that caste has been a catalyst in many instances in the emergence of nationalism in South Asian societies including the Sinhalese society.
On the other hand, the court rulings in the Hambantota case and the presidential term question set the stage for the 2005 November presidential election between Ranil Wickremasinghe and Mahinda Rajapaksa. Shunned by the outgoing President, Chnadrika Kumaratunga, Rajapaksa made a Faustian deal with southern extremists, and received an unexpected (Faustian in reverse) gift from the LTTE in the north. The upshot was an unexpected and narrow victory for Mahinda Rajapaksa that would change the face and content of Sri Lankan politics even more dramatically and negatively than the changes engineered by JR Jayewardene following his far more decisive and landslide victory in 1977.
After a brief period of faking peace and negotiations, the Rajapakse government and the LTTE resumed fighting with primitive passions. If unexpectedly the government forces were well prepared and equipped, equally unsurprisingly the LTTE was prepared to become the victim of its own assumptions of invincibility. The return to full fighting was the final repudiation of the post-tsunami hopes and desires. Thus the evils of war prevailed over the virtues of peace in Sri Lanka, whereas post-tsunami peace efforts in Indonesia successfully ended the war between the Indonesian government and the rebels of the Aceh Province that had suffered the worst devastation among all the Indian Ocean littorals struck by the 2004 tsunami.
History ties up in knots and ironies those who ignore its lessons. In 1977, the TULF, even as it was seeking the mandate from the Tamil people for a separate state, had a secret understanding with JR Jayewardene to work towards regional autonomy as a ‘viable alternative’ to separation. That President Jayewardene did not keep to his side of the bargain became the main TULF grievance against Jayewardene and his government. The TULF’s backsliding on Eelam and JRJ’s repudiation of his understanding with the TULF eventually enabled the LTTE to declare itself ‘the sole representative’ of the Tamils. No one knows for certain if there was, or not, any understanding between the LTTE leader and the Mahinda Rajapaksa campaign team before the LTTE ordered the Tamil voters to boycott the 2005 presidential elections. The general conjecture has been that in the LTTE’s estimate restarting fighting against a Rajapaksa government would be more defensible internationally than going to war against a Wickremasinghe government given that it was with Ranil Wickremasinghe that V. Prabhakaran had signed the 2002 Ceasefire Agreement. It would have also made no sense for the LTTE to go to war against a Wickremasinghe government if, as expected, Tamil voters had contributed to a likely Wickremasinghe’s victory in 2005. Whatever the motivations, they were too cynical and too clever that ultimately proved to be counterproductive.
To the dismay of the LTTE, the international community did not lift a finger to stop the war. And contrary to postwar revisionism now propagated by the Rajapaksa government and its supporters, every government in the world, including the Tamil Nadu government, directly or indirectly took the government’s side in its war against the LTTE. Ironically for the government, however, this widespread support including crucial supply of arms and satellite intelligence information came at a price. The price was the government’s commitment to minimize impacts on the civilian population and to achieve a political solution to the Tamil question after the war. Despite the government’s efforts to bluff, bluster, deny and wriggle out of its war time commitments, the Indian and Western governments are not letting up in holding the Rajapaksa government to accountability for the effects of war on civilians and for the failure to achieve anything substantial in regard to postwar recuperation and political solution.
The accountability issue is now formalized through resolutions at the UNHRC. British Prime Minister David Cameron stirred history by his dramatic visit to Jaffna during the November Commonwealth Summit and committed his government to further strengthen the UNHRC resolutions on Sri Lanka at the Commission’s next session in March, if the Sri Lankan government does not take meaningful measures to address outstanding questions in the meantime. The government’s apologists at the Lake House and elsewhere have ridiculed Cameron as a colonial boor and flung other opprobrious epithets at the British Prime Minister. These verbal attacks might justify the attackers’ stipends and excite the regime’s political base, but they will neither diminish Cameron’s international presence, nor have a persuasive effect on the UN High Commission in Geneva. The government’s predicaments are its own making.
Like the tsunami aftermath, the postwar circumstances presented another Tabula Rasa opportunity for the victorious Sri Lankan government to chart a new path to modify – if I could paraphrase Dr. Colvin R. de Silva’s eloquent formulation before JRJ’s All Party Committee in January 1984 – Sri Lanka’s state structure to become congruent with its social plurality. Three years later, the Thirteenth Amendment (13A) became the first step towards achieving this congruence. Better late than never, 13A also fulfilled, after 31 years, the Left’s longstanding recommendation of Sinhala-Tamil linguistic parity, instead of a singular official language, that too was famously captured by Dr. Colvin in his brilliant aphorism: one language, two countries; two languages, one country. Three decades of on-again, off-again war scuppered the implementation of 13A especially in the Northern and Eastern Provinces which the devolutionary changes were meant for. The end of the war presented a new opportunity for a systematic implementation of 13A. But the end of the war also presented a dreadful situation that the Sri Lankan state and society have never experienced before, namely, a humanitarian tragedy affecting hundreds of thousands of people in the North and in the East.
If the political situation called for positive political conviction and systematic efforts, the humanitarian situation begged for empathy, priority and allocation of soft resources. The government provided neither but created more aggravations. Where magnanimity was needed, the government responded with crass triumphalism. Where war-affected people were looking for reparation, they got the sense that the government was unleashing retribution. In the name of exclusive physical development, the government neglected or dismissed the real existential problems traumatizing the people, namely, the special needs of special war victims comprising, young widows, those who lost their eyesight and/or limbs, and those without livelihood. To add injury to insult, the military intrusion of the north continues unabated. While national security is the government’s justification for entrenching the military in the North, there is no security for the people in the North because of the intrusive presence of the military. The military is now the new vehicle of colonization, it is the overseer of civilian administration, and it is becoming the undertaker of commercial activities.
Politically, the President heralded his postwar politics by denying the existence of minority problems, rather than admitting to and addressing them. ‘Be patriotic, all ye Sri Lankans’, was the President’s clarion call internally. The emptiness of this call is best exemplified by the harrowing experiences of the Muslims in recent years. The President is adept at making handsome promises (such as 13A+) and barefaced reversals (such as attempting to dilute or rescind 13A). Under pressure from abroad, he launched the LLRC Commission, but has shown no genuine desire to implement its recommendations. There is more implementation of the LLRC recommendations on the power-point screen, than on the scorched ground among the suffering people. After many promises, followed by the usual foot-dragging, and relentless foreign pressure, the President quietened the insider naysayers and went ahead with the NPC election in September. The TNA won a landslide victory and Justice Wigneswaran was elected Chief Minister. The President and the government have shown no enthusiasm to work with the TNA, Justice Wigneswaran and the new Provincial government, while the government’s Provincial Governor in the North is all enthusiastic about dismissing the elected Council and re-establishing his writ over Jaffna and the North
Post-tsunami there were four spoilers (Chandrika Kumaratunga, V. Prabhakaran, Ranil Wickremasinghe, and Mahinda Rajapaksa), who should share the blame for singly and jointly destroying the new opportunity for change. Postwar, there is no one to carry the blame except President Rajapaksa. He is the sole creator of his own predicament. In a sense, the government has exhausted its bag of political tricks, reached a stalemate locally, and lost all credibility internationally. The only way out for the government and the country is for the President to direct those around him to stop playing tricks and start reversing their postwar aggravations, one at a time and every one of them. He could start the new direction with his Governor in Jaffna, and that would augur well for the New Year.