11 December, 2019

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Strengthening A Common Struggle Across Ethnicities

By Kishali Pinto-Jayawardena –

Kishali Pinto-Jayawardena

At first look, the sight of darkly unsmiling men with a few women scattered among them, gathered together in a dilapidated school hall of an impoverished village deep in the dusty interior of the East of Sri Lanka is both formidable and unsettling.

A litany of questions

The tense translator whispered that this was, at one time, a favourite recruiting area for the LTTE regional leaders who had preyed on the poverty stricken Tamil youth of this village. Long before the war ended and even before the Eastern split occurred in the movement, these villagers had realized the futility as well as the brutality of the tactics adopted by their ‘liberators’. Those who were able to do so had fled back to the village. Others had perished, either at the hands of the LTTE itself or by government forces. Now, those who remained continued to be neglected, pushed out of the way by the tourism centered development drive centered on beachfront properties and the bustling towns of the main travel routes.

The intense anger on the part of those present was unmistakable and the litany of complaints was long. Why were their places of worship not respected? Why were statutes stolen from one temple and taken to another? Why were government officials coming to their homes and asking for copies of the deeds to their lands only to thereafter destroy the legitimate deeds and forge other documents so that outsiders could come and occupy their lands? Why were people still being forcibly abducted? Why were they still not being provided answers as to whether their sons and daughters, some of whom had been forcibly recruited by the LTTE, had been killed or were in detention? Several mothers loudly bewailed the fact that their children were being kept for two to three years in prison without any charges being filed against them.

Throughout, it was reiterated that the Tamil people were not against the Sinhalese people but that it was the Sinhalese politicians who were not giving justice to the Tamil people. When it was pointed out however that not only Sinhalese politicians but also Tamil politicians were to blame for what befell Sri Lanka, reluctant chuckles began to be heard, hesitant smiles dawned and nods of acquiescence were seen all around. What was remarkable was the way in which, quite as much as a knife cuts through butter, genuine empathizing with their plight broke through the tensions and dissipated the palpable hostility in the air.

Necessities of ordinary people

For these people, the upcoming provincial elections in the East are of little interest (except as a protest against a government that they see as trampling on their culture and identity) as they have no faith that the desperate poverty of their village and surrounding areas would be lessened by politicians of any ethnicity or belonging to any party. Where in other areas of the country, the sight of a provincial minister using state vehicles and state officials for electioneering would still, despite the now endemic nature of the abuse of state resources, result in the raising of an eyebrow and call for a sarcastic remark by a Sinhalese villager, here such a sight elicits no response. These people have seen far worse and gone through far more horrific nightmares. To them, pronouncements on the Rule of Law and constitutional liberties carry no significance whatsoever.

And as opposed to the sophisticated urbanites in Colombo arguing constitutional fripperies in elegant language, the realities of ordinary life in these far flung areas are unmistakably different. Necessities are stripped down to the bone. Their imperative demand for the minimum of the people’s culture and identities to be protected by fair administrative and legal processes, whatever the overall constitutional structure may be, is at once starker and far more powerful in its impact than abstract constitutional debates.

The tossing aside of a stable legal order

Seen from this vastly commonsensical perspective, reconciliation between communities in these formerly war affected areas could have been achieved by just that little bit more concern for the country and just that little bit less of outright greed for money and power on the part of this administration.  A carefully planned post war reconciliation process, building on the basis of a stable legal order that commands equality before the law would have provided Sri Lanka’s best answer to the Eelamist lobbies overseas.

Instead, what we had was the dismantling of those slight checks and balances that already existed, the enthroning of the Executive Presidency and the despicable tossing away of the 17th Amendment to the Constitution. At that time, those who protested against this virtual ‘kingship’ were disregarded. It was even maintained by the more credulous among us that a limited amount of ‘monarchical rule’ would be good for the country as the democratic process had not worked so far. People wrote letters to the newspapers asking the Secretary to the Ministry of Defence to clean up the Augean stables of the corrupt police establishment as much as the war against the LTTE had been fought. Right to Information legislation was opined not to be necessary by many as the Presidency was seen to be the ultimate magnanimous fount of all rights.

Any dissenter who critiqued government policy and called for the accountability of politicians towards the people were labeled supporters of the LTTE and found themselves in a whirlpool of slander and character assassination drummed up by propagandists. Vice Chancellors of universities and other academics openly endorsed the incumbent President. Fundamental concepts of integrity and balance in public service were tossed to the winds in our disgraceful eagerness to pay obeisance to political power. Judges and lawyers competed with each other to accept unconstitutional appointments to what were supposed to be independent constitutional commissions in what was an abandonment of their wider duty to uphold the Rule of Law.

The office of the Attorney General was brought directly under the Presidential Secretariat. Proving those lotus eaters who observed that this change would not result in different prosecutorial policy most spectacularly wrong, the then holder of the post brought the office of the chief law officer of the State to such degenerative depths that shocked even those who were no strangers to these games.

A country in chaos

Well past these immediate post war years which radically transformed Sri Lanka from being a flawed democracy to a nation in the throes of complete and utter non-governance, we now experience their destructive consequences in full. Quite apart from the trampling of rights of ethnic Tamils living in the North and East save for the powerful few who are in collusion with the government in selling the country for their own gain, the country may justifiably be said to be in chaos. Religious tensions have steeply increased. Criminals run rampant in every corner of the land. The ubiquitous Julampitiye Amare, politically protected as he is, is still on the loose despite ineffectual judicial intervention in regard to pending arrest warrants for murders, as we saw this week when a series of burglaries was reported to be his doing. Rapes of young village girls by local government politicians only result in temporary arrests while public attention is high.

The head of the local authority in Tangalle who was accused of killing a British tourist and raping his girlfriend has been reinstated to his party positions despite an official announcement by the ruling party seniors that errant party members would be severely dealt with. Meanwhile a government minister accused of complicity in the attack on a court house in Mannar remains defiantly at large, despite the sworn affidavit of the judge who had been threatened and despite investigations indicating the complicity of this minister and his supporters.

The authority of the law and of the courts appears to be at a minimum. Just a few days ago, a North Central provincial court recommended that those who abuse state property during the upcoming provincial elections should be chased and stoned, indicating quite disturbingly the extent to which public confidence in the efficacy of the law has been affected, even on the part of the judges themselves.

Recognising the common enemy

Against this backdrop and in that far off village in the East, perhaps the most energizing aspect of that entire exercise was the vigorous discussions that took place regarding protests being carried out by university teachers and trade unionists.  Refreshingly, these people appeared to be far more receptive than the shrill diasporic voices in acknowledging the greater strength of a common struggle against a despotic government rather than focusing narrowly on ethnic interests alone.

If these attitudes could be replicated and the common enemy of the elite in general and the political elite in particular is recognized across Sri Lanka’s villages not only in the North and East but in other parts as well, this country may look forward to a different future than what dismally now awaits us.

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Latest comments

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    Excellent analysis Kishali, thank you! This is so needed to bridge the gap between the various ethno-religious groups, particularly minorities! Clearly identifying the ‘common enemy’ which is the Rajapakse regime and its military apparatus which is doing the same thing that the LTTE did in northeast during the war – destroying relationships between communities and land grabbing!
    Kishali your analysis is needed especially when a self-appointed NGO Commissions such as a recent jokers who went to Mannar have come up with a non-report that is so superficial and biased towards one party, that its not worth the paper its printed on regarding the complexities of the relationships between Muslim-Sinhala and Tamil communities. These self appointed NGO wallas do not seem to know the meaning of analysis and research and their report is likely to make things worse not better for the affected communities and caters to the divide and rule policies of the Rajapakse regime – but these NGO folks are so full of themselves and think they are the last word on civil society and community relations!

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    Bravo!Sensitive, emotional and true writing.

    One element that was perhaps missed is the rise of Muslim fundamentalism in the East. I was in Pottuvil last week and the rumblings were ominous.If not unchecked, this will be the next great crisis for Sri Lanka.

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    Kishali Pinto-Jayawardena says:

    “acknowledging the greater strength of a common struggle against a despotic government rather than focusing narrowly on ethnic interests alone.”

    I agree with common struggle.

    However she narrowly aims at a despotic government. Governments come, enjoy power, accumulate wealth for their members, supporters and cronies and violate every human rights law in the book with impunity and people vote them out when their sell by date expires.

    The state structure which gives succour to elected governments stays put, in its perpetual existence.

    Although despotic government should be either eased out or kicked out or both, it is important that the state is restructured making it democratic and answerable to people. Corrupt governments need corrupt officials including the armed forces, judiciary, police, and the bureaucracy.

    The corrupt armed forces, judiciary, police, and the bureaucracy need corrupt governments for their own survival.

    Therefore the focus should be on both the state and the government.

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    Yes, I agree about the neccesity to change the state structure. Very good point, Native Vedda. In our case, the Executive Presidency needs to be abolished pronto. Good to see that Ven Sobitha is making this the main plank of his campaign

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      Yes, nothing else is the most need than abolishiing executing presidency pronto to protect the nation from all evils today.

      http://www.adaderana.lk/news.php?nid=19385

      If halluzinated masses further believe in MR ´s governance was main factor to anhihiate the Ltters wihtin lanka, why does he fail to face the challenges successfully today ?

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    Pandukabaya de Silva:

    The point I am trying to make in this forum is that whatever constitutional arrangements you may effect it would not work unless you make the armed forces, police, judiciary, bureaucracy, civil service,……. to work for the people.

    All these public servants think they are the masters and the Joe public is their servants. This has to change. Too much power is vested in them for not serving the people. They are corrupt, inefficient, not fit for purpose, sustaining and servicing their corrupt political masters because they depend on the politicians for employment, promotion and protection when they fall foul of law,……..

    If we have a dedicated civil service most of the political corruption can be nipped in the buds. Police and armed forces have been part of the politicians private army. Instead of protecting the civilians they protect the criminals from public.

    This did not start with MR, Terror Gota or Mervyn and this will not end with them.

    During the 1971 JVP uprising(?) many innocent Sinhalese youth were either made to disappear or disabled. I had had the misfortune of meeting a few of the victims. They were taken from their homes and were severely tortured through no fault of their own let to rot for the rest of their lives. All these happened with impunity.

    Who did torture them – the police, an institution suppose to serve the people. Many were taken to various places and summarily executed. The police was acting as the judge, jury and the executioner.

    It was Sinhalese youth in 1971 the first batch of victims. Then the Tamil youths. Then Sinhalese youth again between 1987 and 1991. Then Tamil youth again victims.

    The differences between 1971 and 2009 are the scale and frequency of these unfortunate atrocities.

    This is an example of a state institution’s misadventure (to put it mildly)at the behest of the rulers.

    Ven Sobitha is also part of the problem. He should be a politician not a monk. The monks too want share of state power.

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      Native Vedda, you are correct in your outlining of the history and of the problem.

      Political monks certainly are a part of the problem. But if Fonseka or Sobitha gets in to do away with the post of the Executive President, I can only stand and cheer!

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        Pandukabaya de Silva

        Regarding the executive presidency JR rebutted his opponents that whoever sits in the chair would not abandon it as it would be so comfortable.

        This is true then it is true now and will be true in the future.

        Chandrika and Mahinda promised at the hustings to abolish it. No president in his/her right mind would willingly abolish the all powerful presidency.

        Fonseka and Sobitha are no different to previous presidents.

        Since Tamils and Sinhalese are born stupid they will fall for these political gimmicks.

        I pity these stupid people.

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          Dear Native Vedda, I must say that it is very easy to criticise in an arm char but the problem with arm chair critics is that no practical solution is proposed to people who have no political alternative. It is no answer to call them silly and adopt a patronising attitude. It is not a question of any president in his or her right mind abolishing the presidency. What the people must do is mount sufficient powerful pressure on them so that this would be the only option. This is what the public in other countries did when they changed their systems. Surely should we not do the same?

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    I agree. Definitely the monks want their share of power. I am just glad to see one monk at least campaigning openly for the abolition of this demmed Presidency.

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    Utter rubbish, Poverty is not the root cause of people taking up arms in a liberation struggle (called terrorism to the brainess). One of the main causes of oppression by the state against one ethnic community to make sure they have no opporunities in life, the Singhala only act was the first, it was’nt poverty that created the LTTE and the other liberation organisations it was state oppression, daaaa

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      Read the writing carefully Canagasabey. What is talked of is not poverty but securing the legal rights of Tamils, Sinhalese and others.

      This is the difference between a simpleton reading a piece like this (if the cap fits, you should ware it) and someone with a wider grasp both of the English language and the essential problem in Sri Lanka.

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        “The tense translator whispered that this was, at one time, a favourite recruiting area for the LTTE regional leaders who had preyed on the poverty stricken Tamil youth of this village.” see second paragraph.

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          Yes but that paragraph merely points to a factual observation being made. It does not say that poverty was simply the only reason for the villagers to join the LTTE. To impose that interpretation is to make an inductive leap which ‘lunatics’ may do (how apt!) but which sane people will abstain from, surely!

          In any event, one primary reason for the LTTE was caste oppression as well as Sinhala-State oppression. To ignore one and to focus only on the other is being dishonestly selective.

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      krishan canagasabey

      right wing rhetoric :

      “Utter rubbish, Poverty is not the root cause of people taking up arms in a liberation struggle (called terrorism to the brainess).”

      You are arguing against your own statement in the following sentence:
      “One of the main causes of oppression by the state against one ethnic community to make sure they have no opporunities in life, “

      Lack of opportunities for the minorities brings poverty.

      Yo can’t have it both ways.

      This is what we call Sinhala/Tamil logic, they can argue for and against all at the same time in one sentence/paragraph. I do not think any other race match both Sinhalese/Tamil logicians.

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    Pandukabaya de Silva

    People are either hapless or in deep political coma, determined by their own stupidity.

    Their immediate needs determine their stupidity.

    Politicians by definition are fraudsters, authoritarian, willing to kill, …… If people are wise enough why would they fall for the politicians’s con?

    Distribution of scarce resources and opportunities is the challenge. The difficult part is how would one distribute them equitably.

    Politicians’ first duty is to accumulate wealth for themselves.

    We may have to work with competing interests.

    Politicians’ greed vs public greed. Outcome of these two determine the quality of life of the voiceless (numerically large) enjoy (always suffer).

    The voiceless should be organised not on party lines but on haves and have not. It is a difficult task but can be done depending on how many selfless good people we can find.

    Also please beware India would be the first one to sabotage such movement articulating for genuine democracy.

    It was reported in the press, India financed the money to bribe VP. VP made sure people didn’t vote. MR was elected by 100,000 margin.

    MR won second time around partly because the Sinhalese saw him as the great Chakravarti who concurred the Demela, partly because of widespread ballot rigging and finally the election commissioner was cowed down to act as MR’s election agent.

    I accept there is no effective opposition only opportunists in the UNP. I do think people have a third choice, not abstaining from voting but spoiling the ballot papers en masse.

    This is never tried before.

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      But spoiling a vote (as much as I agree with it and have done it myself) is a negative way of destroying the franchise. What is the positive way of moving forward? Should we not work with the political choices that we have and impose the public will on them?

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        Pandukabaya de Silva:

        “is a negative way of destroying the franchise”

        No on the contrary you are still exercising your right to vote as a democratic duty but making a huge protest by spoiling it.

        For instance if there is 51% of the counted votes are spoiled what is the justification for state’s existence?

        If you don’t vote in the election, at the end of the polling day those votes would be utilised by whoever is in power.

        We haven’t protested en masse in the elections by spoiling the votes. This could be a lesson for the opposition as well because people are rejecting both candidates.

  • 0
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    But what follows from such a huge protest via spoiled votes en masse? Would you not agree that this strategy (which certainly appeals to me) needs to be combined with a strong political alternative?

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