By Dayan Jayatilleka –
There is more than one Geneva diversion. The obvious one is that perpetrated by the regime, but it is not the only Geneva diversion and is not even the bigger one. True, a Minister of External Affairs whose diplomatic practice, is no match for the arrogantly aggressive effort of his UK counterpart against the country, and who spends his time playacting as an unlikely Aristotle to an unlikelier Alexander, exemplifies a regime that regards the Geneva challenge primarily as a helpful electoral diversion. Certainly an ex-Minister of Human Rights who brags moronically about a division in the UNHRC votes, forgetting that there is no election which doesn’t have such a split in votes; a regime which projects a ‘Gangnam-cum-gangsta’ style diplomacy in the choice of its most influential presidential advisor; a power elite which does not mind losing votes at the UNHRC by an ill-timed imposition of a heavy security blanket in the North and a petulant justification of it, all point to an outlook in which Geneva is more a vote gathering slogan than anything else.
And well it might be, given that the Rajapaksa administration will owe a significant slice of its election victory this time around, to the ill-targeted Geneva resolution. That resolution in its present shape and form could also help the regime make it over the top at the all-important presidential and Parliamentary elections in (more or less) a year’s time. Thus the multiple ‘R’s (the Rajapaksa’s) will owe their collective political continuity in office, to the dual ‘R’s: the Resolution and Ranil, the hardy perennial.
It is not any resolution that would have this effect; it is this resolution as it has been shaped. Differently put, another UNHRC resolution, equally tough, could have either had a neutral domestic-electoral effect or acted as a catalyst or lever of positive transformation. This one doesn’t. The Americans have a phrase: “how does it play in Peoria?” This means that every political move has to be tested against its effect at the grassroots, in the boondocks. So how will the UNHRC resolution play in Sri Lanka’s equivalent of Peoria?
Not even the best strategist of a regime with a populist-patriotic profile and posture (critics may say a pseudo-populist/pseudo-patriotic regime) could have thought of a better means of ratcheting up a siege mentality and extending the ‘insurance cover’ of patriotism as a political factor, than to have a former colonial occupier arrogantly push an investigation by a strident personality of the same ethnic origin as the island’s disaffected minority, into the conduct of a much loved soldiery during a national resistance war against fascist separatism.
The real diversion
However, the biggest Geneva diversion is not that which is being perpetrated by the Sri Lankan regime in domestic electoral politics, but the diversion currently going on in Geneva at the UNHRC.
That massive diversion is the shifting of attention from the lamentable and dangerous state of affairs precisely in post-war Sri Lanka, by conflating it with the issue of the war and wartime conduct, and thereby diffusing it. The largest cover for present and ongoing misdeeds is the focus on the war. The regime has little credibility on the Sri Lankan street when it comes to its post-war conduct in South or North. By contrast it does retain considerable credibility and legitimacy when it defends the war and the soldiery. This is deeply, ineradicably, rooted in ethnic and ethno religious nationalism, but also in the kind of patriotism that is universal, and the kind of anti-intervention/pro-sovereignty nationalism that is widespread in the global south (and Eurasia). Above all it is rooted in memories of the hideous, suicide-bombing fascist LTTE. The Sri Lankan people will be both grateful for and proud of the crushing of that hated enemy, for a very long time to come. It will form part of the collective memory and narrative of the majority of inhabitants of the larger part of the island. They will never be more in sympathy with an international inquiry — and those minoritarian/cosmopolitan local enclaves that support it— than they are with a leadership and a peasant based soldiery—their sons—who delivered them from this enemy.
The UNHRC resolution thereby extends the historical arc of wartime legitimacy of the regime beyond its natural political shelf-life. It also prevents the natural rift that would have opened up between a parasitic power cartel and the state, and instead solidifies the support of the state as a whole for the political regime because the threat posed to the collective effort of the state (the war) and to the corporate interest of armed forces as an entity (international inquiry), will prove a better adhesive than the threat of individual prosecutions that would prise open gaps.
Crudely put, the resolution as it is presently configured, with its retrospective–punitive focus on the war, appears ethnocentric— and it does so in an already polarised ethnic environment. How pray will this help reconciliation?
Equally crudely put, if it is a choice between a Rajapaksa and a Pillay or a Wickremesinghe–Kumaratunga duo that sides with a Pillay as most voters now see the problem, who would the vast majority of Sinhalese, the vast majority of the island’s populace, chose? Who would the million strong social constituency that is the armed forces and their families, chose?
I hasten to add that I am not speaking so much as a former Sri Lankan Ambassador/Permanent representative to the UN in Geneva who stood against an international inquiry but much more so as one whose training is as a student of politics, specially international politics. Let me illustrate my point by way of example. As I type, one of the persons I most admire and am privileged to know, Prof Richard Falk is delivering his valedictory address to the UN Human Rights Council in his capacity as UN Special Rapporteur on Occupied Palestine. His report was previewed by Reuters and made it to the Yahoo headlines. What made the news was his indictment of Israeli policies as reflecting “elements of ethnic cleansing, colonialism and apartheid” and his grim analysis of the prospects for peace, due mainly to the growth of political opinion in Israeli society, which, almost incredibly, is even more hawkish than that of Netanyahu. Richard Falk is an Emeritus Professor of International Law at Princeton. He is the author of dozens of books. He is also Jewish. I have told him that in his uncompromisingly principled moral and ethical stance he reminds me of an Old Testament prophet. But what if he were of Palestinian or Arab origin? Would his indictment of Israeli policies carry anything like the same credibility and legitimacy? Even more to the point, what if he had focused on Israeli conduct in all, some or any of its past wars (1948, 1956, 1967, 1973, 1982, 2006, 2008) instead of on its present policies and practices of Occupation? What would have been the moral force of his critique, were he of Arab origin, and were he critiquing Israel’s conduct of the 1967 or 1973 wars, which most of its citizens and some part of the world support, while he also criticised Israel’s model of Occupation, which almost no one endorses or supports?
Isn’t this precisely what a David Cameron driven, Navi Pillay propelled inquiry into the war would be tantamount to, or at the least be perceived as, by most Sri Lankans? Wouldn’t it be an even worse travesty, given that Israel fought wars outside its legitimate territory and engaged in annexation while Sri Lanka manifestly did not?
The international community and the West have to be clear as to what the goal of their Sri Lanka policy is. Is it to soften up the regime and alter regime behaviour so as to further a fair political accommodation of the Tamils (perhaps by Indian and/or South African facilitation)? Or is it perhaps to set the scene for a kind of benign regime change that would further such an accommodation of the Tamil minority without devastating consequence at the hands of the military? Whichever the case, an external probe into the war, proposed by Sri Lanka’s last colonial power, is exactly the opposite direction in which to go. It doesn’t soften either the regime or, more importantly, public opinion and social mood. It hardens them.
The national ‘power cartel’ has engaged in massive social engineering and politico- ideological ‘infrastructure development’—such as the overt and covert militarization of institutions, resource allocation, social practices and state discourse—in order to entrench and reproduce itself, ensuring continuity and succession in office. Ironically though, there is no single act which can remotely match the UNHRC resolution for an external inquiry into the war, as a durable structuring of the entire socio-political terrain in a manner that legitimizes and entrenches the power elite!
There is another more perverse explanation to all this of course. The only logic that a war-centred, backward looking UNHRC resolution could have is that its main sponsors, or at least the ex-colonial one, intends to give a Balfour declaration-like signal to the Tamil people, envisages the gross overreaction of the paranoid element of the Sri Lankan security apparatus, and entertains the option of a Kosovo type partition of this island. Let us recall that the Balfour declaration was the product of the interaction between the Zionist Diaspora and the British politicians of the early decades of the 20th century— and we have witnessed such interaction between the Eelamist Tamil Diaspora lobbies and British politicians at the highest levels.
Any attempt at breakaway under external patronage will only reinforce the lunatic fringe in the South, including within the state. Already, towards the end of the war, with the pressure for a cessation of hostilities, young ‘lions’ in uniform (including at officer level) were prepared to resist, arms in hand, any external intrusion from any quarter. Ultranationalist Sinhala ideologues and ‘strategists’ have long fantasized about capitalising on the less than neat demographic map of the island and the presence of minorities outside the North and East, to deflect and draw in any external power projection to the island’s Southern two thirds, engage in protracted resistance and create a quagmire.
A game changer
In the midst of such dark clouds it felt uplifting to spot a silver lining. This came in the form of nothing less than a tour de force by Anura Kumara Dissanayake the new leader of the JVP, facing a grilling by a panel on the programme ‘Satana’, on Sirasa TV. He kept the audience engaged while he ably rolled out a new perspective, which could, if elaborated and refined, indicate a possible game changer both in public consciousness and national political trajectory. Under its new leadership, the JVP is growing into a real political option at the national level, and it is doing so in real time.
After watching this episode of ‘Satana’, Sarath de Alwis, a student of the University of Heidelberg in the heady days of ’68 and a literate political columnist under my father’s editorship in the Lake House and Times newspapers in the 1970s emailed me about Anura Kumara’s performance. Significantly, he wrote: “He made it easy for me on March 29th. In the autumn of life, he made it worthwhile for me to leap over the winter of discontent and live in hope of another spring”.
While this renewal of the JVP through its new young leader brings to mind the electoral renaissance of ex-revolutionary groups in Latin America, it is also true that he is no Jose Mujica (of Uruguay’s MLN-Tupamaros), Dilma Roussef (one time militant of Brazil’s VAR-Palmares) or Salvador Sanchez Cerena, the newly elected President of El Salvador, known to my politico-ideological generation as Commandante Leonel Gonzalez of the Farabundo Marti FPL (and successor of Salvador Cayetano Carpio). However, when redrawn to the Sri Lankan scale, and given the urgency of the Sri Lankan crisis, I have no hesitation in saying that if in the immediate aftermath of the upcoming PC elections and with the imminence of a Presidential election within a year, the UNP fails to effect a generational change in its leadership as the JVP has done, and the UNP’s reformist ‘young Turks’ fail to launch a new party, society may — and should— shift a few steps leftward, to a JVP-centric broad Oppositional project at both Presidential and parliamentary elections; one in which Anura Kumara Dissanaike rather than the ridiculously rancid Ranil or colossally confused Chandrika, can be the common oppositional candidate, along the lines of the successful Latin American populist-democratic left.