By Keerthi Weerasooriya –
Geneva is the headquarters of the United Nations in Europe from 1946; it was a very logical choice as buildings, facilities and the environment for the United Nations was available from the failed institution of the League of Nations (one of the earliest institutions that could not prevent war). The wide open large square in front of the Palais des Nations (Palace of Nations) is dominated by the monumental sculpture of a Broken Chair (a 12 metre high chair with one leg shattered) which was initially an advocacy tool for getting the countries to sign the Ottawa Treaty on Landmines. The treaty came into effect in 1999 and at present 162 nations have signed it (including Sri Lanka), but notable absentees are the United States, Russia and China; those who preach must also do? That does not appear to be so for landmines.
The large square in front of the Palais is a playground (when it is not otherwise occupied!) for families with little children prancing around trying to avoid the water jets or maybe even not avoiding them. It is often “otherwise occupied” as a platform for peaceful civil protests on varying causes. Last Friday (14th September) there was a large protest with the loudspeakers on the occupation of Tibet by China with the flag of Tibet, pictures of the Dalai llama, Tibetan Buddhist chants all amplified by big loudspeakers in an attempt to reach the United Nations buildings situated far in the well-maintained gardens. On the sides were stacked very neatly but not on display, the posters of “Tamil Genocide” with no security whatsoever.
The Demonstration which was … ?
On Monday (17th) the demonstrations for the UN to take note of the “Tamil Genocide” began in full earnest at noon. Unlike previous demonstrations on this subject (which had pan-European participation), this appeared to be a “Swiss” affair with no buses from other European countries. It appeared to be an “internal” affair with the speeches in Tamil and an occasional speech in English. The usual posters of the Leader, and the Map of the Nation being advocated were waived but placards were also of a very useful size to shade those waving it from the fierce uncharacteristic September sun of Geneva. In some aspects it was a family affair with the ten year old daughter wearing the best party dress and the younger brother wearing an unfamiliar bow. The merchant side of the community was also taken note of – tasty rice packets and the standard propaganda paraphernalia. While the fiery speeches were going on in the raised platform, the crowd (which was about 2000) was having their own amiable conversations, greeting each other and breaking off to applaud and raise a cheer when the speaker made a very loud point. The Geneva City Police had assessed this to be a meeting with very little potential for disturbance and there was only one police van with seven policeman, some standing around in the sun and others dozing inside the van.
Many decades ago
Propaganda badges were being sold by lithesome young girls; when they asked me to purchase a badge, I politely mentioned I was Sinhalese and they quickly turned away with no engagement. These lasses reminded me of the batch mates from Jaffna that I used to flirt with in my university days a long long time ago. These same batch mates will be at a “batch reunion” in Sri Lanka, are now valued professionals in the countries they are resident. It was the general trend of a minority of the batch remaining in Sri Lanka and majority seeking pastures abroad that made them migrate – there would have been in equal proportions of the Sinhalese and Tamil.
Some ironies in the Posters
The posters that were put out had scenes from the war especially in the last few weeks – death and destruction played a prominent role. However there were ironic twists – in the background of two pictures was a Department Of Health ambulance with the state logo. In another picture there were soldiers guarding a group of women seated on the ground who all seemed reassured. Where in other civil conflicts did the government from the opposite side pay for the health services and treatment for combatants on the opposing side? In contrast there were multiple pictures of victims with bandages, broken limbs and, refugees superimposed on fireballs. There were the familiar pictures of “before” and “after” (with bullet wounds) of prominent personalities – it did remind me of the cruelties of war and also of that there were no before and after of the massacres in Anuradhapura.
One of the speeches was in English, making the standard demand of an international investigation. There was the routine applause and I managed to engage the speaker sometime later on a long conversation in a very civil manner amidst the fiery speeches that continued. It was clear to those surrounding us, that it was Tamil and Sinhalese discussion (in English) but there were no comments or menacing gestures; friends of the speaker came, shook hands said a few word in Tamil and went away.
Who are the culprits?
I asked the speaker – Were demonstrations like this useful or would it have been more constructive to advocate for change within Sri Lanka itself? Clearly the diaspora would not return as they were comfortable in Switzerland but would continue to advocate to maintain their identity. I had no reply to the accusation of a Minister of the government being the leader of the group that burnt down the library in Jaffna – that was the murder of the soul of a community. However later on, no government could stand by when there was advocacy for disembowelment of the country and arms had to be met with arms. The accusation was that there was room for negotiation but that was not taken by the government – a very dubious on given the evidence that accumulated that Times of Peace were used to accumulating arms. One aspect that we both agreed upon was that politicians from both sides (and that was not only UNP/SLFP but Sinhalese and Tamil) who were the root cause for short-term political gain and power. Would the majority Sinhalese population allow the minority to exist – what has been the role of the Buddhist clergy in advocating for peace? At least he agreed that the recent jail sentence on the most unBuddhistic individuals had been a step in the correct direction. However I could not think of a recent prominent call for National Peace from the Buddhist clergy.
But back to the question whether this type of demonstrations for a separate state are useful? The speaker mentioned that this is the staking out of a position to begin negotiations – a separate state would then be rolled down to a federated country with devolved responsibilities. Theoretically good, but we are despondent of the irresponsible activities of these devolved governing bodies right throughout the country. Where is the control of the provincial councils?
Transparency – not only for the North but for the whole of the country
The plea was for the citizens in the North to be given a chance to have a normal life – the lands that were taken away are being given back but as forest land with no preparation. The government has a responsibility to at least clear it and return. Does it? If land had been taken over in the other parts of the country, would it have been cleared and returned? The Chief Minister of the Northern Provincial Council had asked for a special fund for development of the province; this had been denied but then I asked him whether such funds should be granted to all Chief Ministers of the Provincial Councils? How could it be ensured that the funds were being spent properly? An idea – why not have all the details of the expenditure on the Internet not only in the North but in all Provincial Councils? That would enable citizens to monitor the expenses.
The recent book – proceeds to War Widows on both sides
I then mentioned the recent book by Ajit Kanagasundaram; he was unfamiliar with it but when I mentioned that the proceeds will be to the War Widows on both sides there was no protests – those who had suffered need to be supported. Additionally when I asked him that when he talked about those who committed human rights abuses should be held accountable, I asked him whether that was from both sides or from the Army only. He had no objection to the abuses from both sides being investigated. A bit ironic as the posters writ large the Leader who should be at the front of the queue if the abuses on that side were to be investigated and with the fiery speeches still going on.
The very very beginning ..
I then brought up the beginning of the armed conflict which was the standardisation for the Advanced Level marks in the 1970s – this deprived a large educated section of the Tamil youth, the opportunity to advance in life. However the good results at the Advanced Level, they were a result of studying as well as good educational facilities. Those from the educationally disadvantaged areas could study as hard but not achieve the same results. That there should be some “positive discrimination” for those in the educationally disadvantaged sectors is now a widely accepted principle, provided that it is implemented transparently and fairly. The students in Colombo, Gampaha and Jaffna had to scale the same high barrier to get into university irrespective of whether they were Tamil or Sinhalese.
Oxford and Cambridge universities accept students with lower grades from the state schools (which have lesser facilities) and have a higher level for acceptance for students from the privileged Private Schools. When the final results are compared at the end of the undergraduate course, those from the state schools had proportionately done much better indicating that the “bar” should have been even lower for the students from the state schools. (Will the University Grants commission release this type of results for the Sri Lankan university system?).
There was no meeting of minds with the speaker on this – he insisted that examination results and intelligence must be the one and only criterion. Thus the village students (this would have included the educationally disadvantaged areas of the Northern and Eastern province) would have continued to be at the end of the queue according to him. So was the struggle for all Tamil students or for those who were disadvantaged by standardisation?
Standardisation was not a permanent solution – there should have been a period of intensee resource allocation to those disadvantaged areas for a specific period of time and then all would have been equal before the Advanced Level examination. Again, the shortsighted aims of the politicians and rulers continue.
Is the diaspora being Civic Minded or was it the threat of a fine?
The conversation ended as the speaker had to go for another meeting at the United Nations High Commission for Human Rights. I wandered around looking at the posters, the rice packets being sold and the books which recorded the history from the other side; should I purchase these books to understand the conflict better or would that be contributing to a course that had no interest in a dispassionate independent narrative. In the end, I did not purchase the books. I then went back to my office wondering what has been learned and what would be useful for the future. I passed the square again at 7.30 p.m. (yes, it was still daylight) and it was neat, swept clean and ready for the next demonstration. Was it the diaspora being more civic minded than the standard Sri Lankan (both Sinhalese and Tamil) or the threat of a fine by the city of Geneva municipal authorities?!
So what can we do?
And so what can we do – can we depend on our politicians and rulers to heal the wounds and bring us together? Maybe some of them will try but despite the history that we saw in the past 30 years their short-sighted and enriching and serving themselves will continue. There is little hope at the high level of rulers, politicians and governance.
Is there a possibility of a bottom–up approach?
Sri Lanka has had the bottom-up approach which produced results – in 1956 the disenfranchised majority of Sinhalese claimed their place in society by using the electoral power. In 1970, the village youth through their insurrection brought about major changes such as land ownership, fair sharing of resources but this was not through an electoral revolution. It may have been self-preservation of the politicians who feared that they would not survive the second insurrection. In the 1990s in the South, that was not a social movement but a fight between the government and a dictatorial political party aiming to take power. That party learnt its lessons and now appears the only one that stands with policy and integrity. As for the civil conflict starting in the 1980s which went on for three decades – a movement that had some valid principles (and in a large measure very dictatorial ones too) collapsed in the end due to their inability to negotiate.
Do the voters get the rulers they deserve?
There has been little consideration of the qualifications of their representatives – it would be extremely interesting to have an independent website with educational qualifications of the “Representatives of the People”. In passing, every member of the British cabinet is a graduate of the University – would it not be asking too much to have our representatives an education that at least ended with a full complete secondary education – that is sat and passed a few subjects at the Advanced Level.
So, the highly educated voters of the country have betrayed the free education that they got – they have like the politicians voted with self-interest (what advantage can I get from the candidate?) and with no consideration of national long-term solutions. There is little engagement with the politicians and the rulers after the citizens have done their duty of electing them; there are no checks and balances during that time, but when it comes to the election, the whole lot is shoved out and a new set is rooted in. At least that was the pattern until 1977; did the “Master Manipulator” who broke the mould and manipulated the election as well as the politicians break this pattern and bring upon this country the decades of violence, waste and civility in politics and in life in general. And did this gave rise to the sense of Entitlement; the war has been won and therefore we as the organisers of the effort are entitled to everything that is in the country. Was not the war (carried out and suffered mainly by the village lads) to bring the country back from that nadir for all to benefit from the welfare, education and opportunities that the country and society will provide.
Do we see a glimmer of light at the end of the tunnel with the curbing of untrammelled power and some of the checks and balances being brought back. If the price we pay perpetual chaos and three steps forward and two steps backwards? Perhaps so and maybe that is the price of democracy.