By 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.
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.