31 October, 2020

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Squandering A Costly Victory

By Asanga Welikala –

Asanga Welikala

Author’s Note: I wrote this political column in the final days of the war at the invitation of Frederica Jansz, then the Editor of The Sunday Leader. It appeared in that newspaper on 3rd May 2009. As we approach the milestone of four years since the war ended, I reproduce it because many of the issues raised then have become reality now, including political violence, majoritarian chauvinism, minority persecution, the destruction of the rule of law, the absence of power-sharing, attacks on free expression and the press, fractious international relations, and the LTTE’s share of the responsibility for the tragedy that unfolded as this piece was being written. Never has political prognostication been such a depressing experience.

Rakwana

The Tamil press this week reported an ominous incident from Rakwana which might portend things to come. Picturesque Rakwana in Sabaragamuwa is a plantation area with a large population of Tamils of recent Indian origin. The annual festival and procession of the Muthumariamman kovil has been held there, according to the Thinakkural, for nearly two hundred years. This year though, self-appointed representatives of the Sinhala Buddhist interest in Rakwana paid visits to members of the kovil organising committee to put it to them bluntly that the procession should not be held, because it coincides with the month of Vesak. The police attempt at mediation came to nought: the meeting with representatives of both sides to settle the dispute was decided when a mob of some five hundred turned up on behalf of the Buddhists. Mano Ganeshan M.P. has written to the President asking for intervention, and it would be interesting to see what form this will take, if and when it happens.

This episode may be an isolated one, but it is symptomatic of several serious political challenges facing Sri Lanka today.

The argument, enforced with the threat of mob violence, that minority groups cannot peacefully exercise their constitutionally protected right to freedom of religion because it offends a peculiarly defined notion of celebrating Vesak is so blatantly repugnant to any conception of a free society that it almost requires no response. However, it is an early sign that the military victory in the North over the LTTE is going to be interpreted, at least among some sections of the Sinhala-Buddhist polity, as the stamp of supremacy over minorities. By this chauvinistic logic, Sri Lanka is the property of Sinhala-Buddhists. Minorities exist at the sufferance of the majority community, and the temerity to exercise anything so exalted as a right guaranteed under the Constitution can be legitimately suppressed. This is the implicit justification for the spate of violence in the recent past against Christians and their churches.

This kind of incident poses a challenge for more thoughtful Buddhist Sri Lankans. How is it that this most reflective, unworldly and tolerant of religious philosophies has been transmogrified into a political ideology of misanthropic narcissism, in the service of thuggish behaviour? There is a significant doctrinal and liturgical challenge to salvage Buddhism from this misappropriation. It is also a political challenge in that Buddhism is the religion of the democratic majority that enjoys a constitutionally privileged status, which carries with it the responsibility to treat minorities and their religions with the decency that should be the hallmark of the good Buddhist.

It is also an illustration once more of the debilitation of the rule of law in this country. As we saw in the murder of the JVP’s Nandana Balage in the Western Provincial Council election campaign, the police feel unable to enforce the law and to do their duty when faced with politically motivated assertions of illegitimate authority in the community. If minorities in Sri Lanka cannot expect the protection of the Constitution and the law enforcement authorities, what hope do they have? This is precisely the kind of majoritarian intolerance that made such a disaster of our post-independence nation-building experience, and which led eventually to militant separatism and civil war. For those who argue, from self-interest or naivety, that the military defeat of the LTTE presents a political opportunity for sustainable peace, it is exactly this kind of behaviour among those who think they are the President’s political vanguard, that should give pause for thought.

How can Sri Lankans who believe in an inclusive, pluralistic Sri Lanka and a rights respecting society underpinned by the rule of law have any realistic faith that the avowed defeat of terrorism in the North heralds a new era? This is why it would be interesting to see how the President responds to Ganeshan. It is an opportunity for him to send a strong message to potential vigilantes that minority-bashing will not be tolerated, and to give a measure of reassurance to the minorities that his government’s anti-terrorism programme is also not an anti-minority programme.

The ‘Sandy Strip’

The military conflict between the State and the LTTE is coming to an end, and although the end now is inevitable, it certainly cannot come quickly enough for civilians who are undergoing a truly horrific experience. The international press’s euphemism of the ‘the sandy strip’ in Mullaitivu has come to typify both the defeat of the LTTE’s nationalism, as well as the attendant possibility of a humanitarian disaster.

The imminent end, for now at least, of the military phase of the conflict gives rise to several issues. The past weeks and coming days will see the unfolding of a terrible humanitarian tragedy for citizens of Sri Lanka who have already experienced decades of conflict, with people dying of disease, starvation, dehydration, and violence. The LTTE’s notion of nationalism also involves a macabre mythology of death and martyrdom, and it seems determined to ensure that its final showdown is the equivalent of an epic sacrificial ritual. It is a deliberate attempt at myth-making through which it hopes to sustain Tamil nationalism over and beyond the present defeat. It is inconceivable therefore that it will heed any call to surrender and let the civilians go.

What the LTTE and its diaspora supporters seem incapable of understanding – just as they were unable to see that separate statehood or indeed autonomy was not possible through exclusively violent means and without political transformation – is that this attempt at pinning the State with the stigma of genocide will simply not hold. Should a large number of civilians die in this final phase as a result of military operations, any objective observer will see the LTTE’s complicity in war crimes and crimes against humanity is as much if not more than that of the State. The charge of genocide, even if one understands the sense of outrage that people like Arundhathi Roy, Maya Arulpragasam, and Anita Pratap have, is an easy one to make, less so to prove. In a context in which future responsibility for war crimes or crimes against humanity is not a clear cut matter of one or other party, it is better that the gravity of these offences are not devalued by injudicious and hysterical use of words like genocide, especially where the LTTE is in the best position to avoid such a catastrophe befalling its own people by surrendering.

Having said that, the government is at serious risk of winning the war but losing the peace. Its attitude of smug complacency that its ‘humanitarian / hostage rescue operation’ is the best thing to happen to the people of Mullaitivu is belied by the fact that conditions are only little better in ‘welfare camps’ than in the ‘safe zone’, which in any case are an example of the mass internment of citizens that should have no place in a free society. Naturally, no one is suggesting the government provides five star treatment to these people, but with the help of the international community and humanitarian organisations, the government can do far more to ensure that its provision of basic services to them better meet international standards governing this type of situation. Instead, the government’s general attitude has been one of confrontation and belligerence especially towards the West, and one of aggression towards the media and civil society. These attitudes stem from what seems like paranoia and defensiveness, especially when arguments about sovereignty and national self-respect are marshalled in its favour. For example, the acrimony surrounding David Miliband’s visit this week only caps weeks of fractious relations with the UK, in which Britain has been frequently reminded that it does not rule Sri Lanka anymore. Quite apart from the fact that we can confidently agree Britain harbours no secret ambition of re-colonising Sri Lanka, this is the kind of embarrassing posturing that surely undermines our international standing as a small but respected member of the international community.

One of the most disturbing factors in what is happening in the North’s humanitarian situation is the government’s close management, indeed manipulation of information with regard to it. It allows no independent verification or reporting and stubbornly refuses more open co-operation with the UN and other organisations. The political dimension to this of course is that the people in the South only hear what the government tells them. This is critical in maintaining popular support in the South, especially in regard to the electoral strategy of staggered provincial elections (and presidential and general elections to come), which are deployed as periodic referenda for the government’s war achievements. Thus for example, while the outcome of the Western Provincial Council election was never in doubt in the present political context, it might have been interesting to see how margins in especially Colombo district may have been affected should the electors here had the benefit of a more complex understanding of what is happening up North. This is at least a partial explanation how, fully allowing for the invertebrate quality of opposition it has ever been the UNP’s misfortune to offer, that the Colombo constituency that voted consistently for peace and constitutional reform seems to have been won over by the government.

Prospects for Devolution and Constitutional Reform

Beyond the immediacy of the humanitarian issues, however, is the big question about the constitutional settlement the government hopes to introduce to address the root causes of the conflict. This is what will ensure that diversity and pluralism in Sri Lanka will be protected and celebrated, rather than becoming a source of future conflict. The government’s stated position in this regard is that it will fully implement the extent of devolution under the Thirteenth Amendment, until the APRC reports on a scheme of further devolution to an extent consistent with the unitary state. Notwithstanding the well-known flaws of the Thirteenth Amendment, it can be argued that some of these may be ameliorated through implementation in a way that respects provincial autonomy, and this was what was expected of the government in its great test case, the Eastern Province. The Eastern Provincial Council marks one year this month, and the story there offers interesting insights into what the government means by full implementation of the Thirteenth Amendment, and thereby indications as to its commitment to deliver more devolution in the future.

Chief Minister Chandrakanthan has publicly made known his complaints about the lack of progress with regard to transferring competences that his Council ought to be exercising in terms of the Constitution, including critical subjects like policing. The Provincial Councils spend next to nothing on capital expenditure and investment, even though there are several devolved subjects that require such expenditure. Instead, this seems to continue to be done by the central government, with the massive Nagenahira Navodaya programme (administered by Basil Rajapakse) for the Eastern Province taking centre stage. The Eastern Provincial Council has passed several statutes in the exercise of its legislative power, that have not received the assent of the Governor because the latter has referred them for review by the Attorney General’s Department. This of course is one of the oldest impediments to the exercise of devolved legislative power experienced by all Provincial Councils. The Governor delays assent by referring provincial statutes to the AG, even though this is not required by the Constitution, resulting either in unnecessary delay or in some cases, the withholding of consent.

Therefore, if this is the experience of devolution in the Eastern Province, the centrepiece of the government’s devolution policy, taken together with the SLFP’s May 2007 constitutional reform proposals to the APRC, it is difficult to be optimistic about what the future holds in respect of devolution as a strategy of securing the peace through constitutional reform. This is why the militarily created political opportunity seems likely to be squandered (adding to the tiresome litany of lost opportunities in this country), and the government’s victory is a victory for the status quo.

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Latest comments

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    Soon, Sinhale Buddhists going to loose their country if these things going to continue for ever. Like in former Yugoslavia, the international community and the UN would get in to solve these issues and divide the country among the different ethnic communities. I’m not kidding, this definitely would happen because the Sinhale Buddhists don’t have the will and right mind to live in peace with others and they don’t want to accommodate their rights as well but simply want to prosecute them because of their religions, language, colour, customs etc.

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      It is not only the Sinhala -Buddhists, but all the people of this country who are about to lose, because their leaders have lost their marbles! If one loses, all will lose. We are in this together. Being in an island we will live or drown together. This is what is happening and is the lesson we failed to learn from recent history.

      Dr.RN

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      Asanga dude, So that history does not repeat itself as tragedy a second time around Lankan CIVIL SOCIETY and other opposition groups, trade unions etc. MUST launch a massive campaign NOW – against the CHOGM being held in Colombo in November which is and will further boost the Rajapassa military dictatorship and land grab:

      Continuous Protests should be held in front of the British and Indian High Commissions for colluding to entrench a military dictatorship in Lanka further.
      The failure of civil society to educate the people on the gigantic waste that is the CHOGM – an old British colonial relic that is now a platform for 3rd world dictators – is part of the problem. Having CHOGM has embolden Rajapassa to move a 19th Amendment to the Constitution to strip Provincial Councils of land and police power which is essentially to gutter the minimalist existing DEVOLUTION and local government and strengthen the military dictatorship.

      The scandal is that organizations like CPA along with the UNP opposition and Ranil Wickramasinghe, rather than educating the Lankan tax payer on the IRRELEVANCE of the Commonwealth of Clowns, a British colonial relic, keeps talking about the Commonwealth as if it is god’s gift to the world – invoking irrelevant Latimar House rules to support Rajapassa’s illegal impeachment of the Chief Justice.

      Civil society needs to start a public education campaign against CHOGM also because the BILL for CHOGM will DEFINITELY BANKRUPT the country which is already heavily in debt and broke The burden of the economic crash after CHOGM due to the massive waste of funds will be passed to the people like the electricity hike.
      You need to stop recycling old articles and prepare for the Lanka Spring to gutter the CHOGM in Rajapassa ville!
      The old or white Commonwealth nations (Canada, Aussi, New Zealand) are laughing while the new Commonwealth’s Asian and African dictators embrace the Commonwealth of Clowns.
      The Commonwealth of clowns is a white elephant organization – an irrelevant colonial vestige that has morphed into a platform for third world military dictators like Rajapassa. Handing it to him may be Britain’s exit strategy to close down an irrelevant white elephant.
      Rajapassa has meanwhile embraced another white elephant like the Hambantota airport and sea port simply to boost his ego and military dictatorship!! Get moving dude!

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        donor dependent civil society should boycott the British and Indian embassy parties…
        The Brits and Indians, are helping entrench further the Rajapassa military dictatorship by planning to stage the Commonwealth of Clowns (CHOGM) show in November.. when Colombo will be in a military lock down for Sharma and his Commonwealth circus to come to town..

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          A campaign to abort the CHOGM must start NOW. Rajapassa bribed Britain and India for CHOGM and democracy is Lanka is the victim of this corruption –

          1. Britain got the million dollar Roll Royce engine deal from Sri Lankan Airlines for Camaron’s support for CHOGM. Sri Lanka cannot afford the cost of Rolls ROyce plane engines or the Commonwealth Circus. The country is in massive debt ant those funds would be better spend on up grading the public bus and train transport system.

          2. India was promised the Northern PC election and the Sampur power plant to control the Trinco Harbour which is desperately wanted to balance China in Hambantota.

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      How sad to see these once ferocious Tigers now waiting and begging their masters to come and hand them the mythical ‘DemelEezham’ on a platter.

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    Ethnic integration is the only solution, not devolution. For that to happen, there should be Muslims and Sinhalese in Jaffna district. Otherwise there will never be any ethnic integration and we will be drawn back to war. Jaffna must not remain Tamil only.

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    This is what happens when the Corrupt in society fix underhand deals with the enemy to come to power, then wipe out a section of the enemy while retaining some and try to do more deals to cover up, naturally will face bigger problems. What is there to squander when the victory itself staged to fool the masses?

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    Lal, at the top, is absolutely right. If things continue as it is the country will get divided along ethnic lines by force on the terms of the International Community.

    Not only that, this place will be like Israel and Lebanon; we will never know peace from that point on. Eventually, the Vietnam War, between India and China is going to take place on this land.

    Catalyst for all this will be the impending economic disaster that is coming.

    Yeah, the author is correct, it is no fun to watch a monkey driving the train; we are about to see a train wreck, that’s for sure.

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    Superb piece of prophetic projection, Asanga. Sadly, most of your projections have come to pass and we find ourselves in a the dismal clutches of the so-called ‘Sinhala Buddhist’ thugs, along with the apparent active egging on by the ‘not-so-far-removed’ powers that be.

    Perhaps another piece of your foresight would give us food for thought about how the next couple of years will go?

    Keep on keepin’ on, bro!

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