By Tisaranee Gunasekara –
“The people want to be free.” – Thomas Saundranayagam, Bishop of Jaffna[i]
Sri Lanka is at a turning point.
The people of the North have spoken, clearly, unambiguously, democratically.
Will the Rajapaksas have the sense to accept the popular verdict, to mend their policies and attitudes towards the minorities in general and the Tamils in particular? Or will they beat the racist-tom tom with increased vigour, under cover of anti-separatism?
The TNA won the Northern Province overwhelmingly, despite concerted efforts by the regime to sow fear and confusion, despite veiled threats by the President and his brothers, despite the sanctimonious preaching of the born-again Kumaran Pathmanathan (KP). Whether this was a vote for the TNA or a vote against the regime/status quo can be argued, ad nauseam. What is indubitable is that the people of the North want to be free in their own homes, villages and towns; they do not want to live like vassals of military overlords; they do not want to be treated like political minors by the state.
By voting as they did, the people of the North have indicated that they cannot be fobbed-off with flashy infrastructure projects, that want a life of dignity and a chance to govern themselves through their own elected representatives.
The high turnout (higher than in the South) demonstrates that the Northern people want to gain these fundamental rights, as Lankan Tamils, peacefully and democratically.
Will the regime get the message? Will the Rajapaksas allow a TNA-led Provincial Council to function?
Hopefully the Siblings will neither punish the Northern people for their choice nor subvert their democratic-will via legal shenanigans, once the Commonwealth is over. Hopefully the Siblings will not use the military and faux security issues to stymie the North’s necessary return to civilian governance, post-election. Hopefully the Siblings will not create a situation where the TNA-led NPC is locked in a do-or-die battle with the army. Hopefully the Siblings will rein in their Tamil allies.
If the Rajapaksas let the TNA-led council to succeed or fail on its own merits, Sri Lanka will triumph. But if the Rajapaksas allow their desire to concentrate all power in the familial-fist take precedence over sense, intelligence and prudence, a new disaster will be born.
We are at a turning point, perhaps one which will determine the future of Sri Lanka. If the regime accepts the verdict of the Northern people, learn the lessons embodied in it and let the TNA-led PC do its democratic best – or worst – the Northern people will feel that they can hope for and work towards a Lankan future. The TNA Manifesto was not separatist; it was not ‘worse’ than the Vaddukoddai Resolution, as Mr. Pathmanathan (KP) sanctimoniously proclaimed. Therefore it would be possible for the Lankan state and the UPFA government to develop a working relationship with a TNA-led NPC – if the Rajapaksas are willing.
If the regime handles this right, the spectre of Tiger will fade away, along with the Diaspora-hardliners. But if the Ruling Siblings refuse to accept this genuinely popular verdict, if they equate this vote with separatism (as fanatics on both sides of the ethnic divide will try to do), then the Tamil people will lose hope about the possibility of democratic change and a Lankan future. And in the resultant landscape of hopelessness and alienation, the Tiger will gain a new relevance.
….And the Southern Choice
A few days before the latest round of provincial council elections, Mandana Ismail Abeywickrama fled the country.
Just hours before elections, the house of TNA candidate Anandi Sasitharan was attacked by a group of armed men.
On election day, the Al Jazeera TV channel was blocked.
Throughout the election campaign, the UPFA, from the President downwards, violated election laws, incessantly and with impunity.
The Rajapaksa method is to have elections on a political terrain which is completely tilted in their favour. The lacklustre leadership of Ranil Wickremesinghe and the juvenile conduct of Sajith Premadasa also work in Rajapaksa favour. Plus a substantial segment of the Sinhala voters still believe in the Rajapaksa promises of a wondrous future.
If the UPFA’s victory in the Central and North-Western provinces stemmed primarily from these sources, then it is not a matter of major concern. But if the UPFA’s victory signify a chauvinistic-shift on the part of the Sinhala electorate, that would bode extremely ill for the future.
In order to maintain their grip on power, the Rajapaksas have been trying to propel the Sinhala electorate towards greater racism, minority-phobia and insularity. The fate of Pakistan should serve as a reminder of the dangers of this path. Pakistan became a full fledged theocratic republic not at birth, but almost 30 years later. This transformation happened not under the aegis of the country legendary founder, Mohamed Ali Jinna, but during the rule of the solidly pro-American military dictator Zia ul-Haq. In his first address to the nation (after deposing President Zulfikar Ali Bhutto) General Zia announced that Islamic laws will replace the existing legal system and an Islamic society established in Pakistan. The new ruler needed to create a support base for his military regime and religious extremism was the weapon he chose to achieve this end.
President Zia’s anti-democratic measures were deeply unpopular in the Pakistan of that time. But three decades on, they have become entrenched in the country and in the popular-psyche. Today a new generation which had grown up under Islamic laws regard these as the natural order of things and violently opposes any reforms. “They are often described as the Zia generation: Pakistanis who have come of age since the 1980’s when the military dictator Gen. Mohammad Zia ul-Haq began to promote Islam in public education and to use it was a political tool… Today the forces he let loose have gained such strength that they threaten to overwhelm voices for tolerance in Pakistan’s feeble civilian government”[ii].
This is what Vellupillai Pirapaharan tried to do with the Tamils. This is what the Rajapaksas are hoping to achieve with the Sinhalese. The Siblings are engaged in a radical transformation of the Lankan state and society, to enhance the state’s identification with Sinhala-Buddhist interests and to make society confirm to the cultural ethos of Sinhala-Buddhism. They seem to think that such an ideological tectonic shift would strengthen their capacity to hegemonise Sinhalese and dominate the Tamils and the Muslims.
In the coming weeks and months, the Rajapaksas might use the Northern vote to reignite Eelam-phobia in the South, especially in time for the next round of provincial polls. After all, if the Sinhalese really believe that the TNA stands for separation, that the Tamil people voted for Eelam and the resurrection of the Tiger is imminent, they will inevitably turn to the Rajapaksas for reassurance and protection.
That path will enable the Siblings to tighten their grip on power; it will also ignite a new ethnic conflict.
That is why it is necessary to make the South understand that the people of the North voted not for separation but against subjugation; and that a functioning NPC will be a bulwark against separatism rather than a stepping stone to Eelam.