In an article published in the Colombo Telegraph on 6th July 2018, this writer wrote the following:
When writing about ethno-national politics in post-war Sri Lanka, this writer has constantly sought to highlight one point – that there is such a thing called Tamil nationalism. Tamil nationalism is a given, and whether some of us like it or not, it continues to exist and in some quarters thrive. A key component of reasonable steps towards reconciliation involves understanding and acknowledging the existence of stakeholders with colliding and opposed views.
Sri Lankans who are Tamil nationalists have the right to espouse their Tamil nationalism. However, it falls upon them [in the very same way it falls upon Sinhalese nationalists], to ensure that their nationalist discourse and actions do not drift into vicious cycles of extremism. We Sri Lankans have for many decades suffered due to such chauvinistic excesses. In 2018, it is definitely time to sit back, adopt a ‘live and let live’ approach, and share the collective responsibility of challenging and containing drifts towards extremism at all levels of Sri Lankan sociopolitical life.
Tamil nationalism is a given. It is an ideology that exists in many shapes and forms, and just like Sinhalese nationalism, Tamil nationalist advocacy takes place along a spectrum, from somewhat moderate, if not parliamentary-political, or a constitutional-nationalist position, a more robust form of regionalism and self-determinism and to a much harsher secessionist discourse. Since the end of the 30-year war in 2009, secessionist Tamil nationalism has been largely confined to Tamil diaspora circles in Southeast Asia and the West.
The fact that Tamil secessionism has no future in Sri Lanka is a geo-strategically proven reality. There is next to no inclination in international law to ‘separate’ and draw dividing lines in islands home to deeply divided socio-political backdrops. In the South Asian context, the national security concerns of the regional superpower, emerging Eastphalian forms of internationalism, the West’s alliance with India in facing up to rising China, the aversion to secessionism in the region at large are all reasons that should have enabled the LTTE to come to terms with the fact that their ‘separate state’ aspiration was thoroughly unrealistic. Their inability to understand this fact, or, to be precise, V. Pirapakaran’s inability to take stock of pressing strategic and geopolitical realities, and especially his unwillingness to take heed of the advice of a vice man, the late Dr Anton Balasingham [especially in the aftermath of the Oslo round of peace talks], were core reasons that led to his ultimate nemesis, along with his militant secessionist movement.
As Sri Lankans – and if we support a smart-patriotic Sri Lankan identity – there is a salient reality that needs to be understood – that Sri Lankan citizens who so wish have every right to uphold Tamil nationalist perspectives. This is extremely important, especially in the context of post-war Sri Lanka.
Unsurprisingly, this is a reality that many Sri Lankans have been reluctant to admit during the first post-war decade. In our democracy, the right of each and every citizen to engage in political activity and mobilization is an inalienable right, and within the democratic sphere, that right must be guaranteed. Any shortage of such an inclusive policy risks causing threats to national sovereignty, national security and to the territorial integrity of the land. Tamil nationalism, whether some of us like it or not, continues to be an influential political discourse in post-war Sri Lanka. However, many people, especially Sinhalese people, tend to cling to the puerile fallacy that the end of the war signified the end of Tamil nationalism. Many people also harbour the impression that Tamil leaders should adopt a servile, subjugated stance, and avoid any evocation of issues such as federalism, regional autonomy, self-determination, linguistic justice, truth-seeking, and justice for missing persons. This is suggestive of a high level of ‘fragility’ within the ethnic majority, which is being exploited by Sinhala nationalist politicians [especially male politicians] for short-term political capital. There is a clear necessity to develop a Sinhalese mass movement against the deployment of an anti-minority discourse [if not a fear psychosis] to the narrow political advantage of a handful of Sinhalese politicians.
Ms. Maheswaran: a controversial statement?
To recapitulate briefly, The Hon. Vijayakala Maheswaran MP landed in hot water in July 2018 over two statements she made in relation to the rights of women and girls of the north in post-war Sri Lanka. These statements turned out to be costly. She was immediately stripped of her position of State Minister of Child Affairs. The first statement was in a speech she delivered at a public meeting. Referring to the insecurity and risk of sexual violence that women and girls are exposed to in the post-war scenario, Ms. Maheswaran said that “the LTTE might need to be resuscitated” in order to ensure the rights of women and girls in Northern Sri Lanka. Ms Maheswaran’s point was that:
If we were to put an end to repetitive violence against women, we may need to bring the LTTE back. The rationale behind this statement is worth attention. For all the absolutely violent atrocities it was known for, the LTTE was seldom accused of sexual violence. Its strict codes of conduct and social conservatisms were such that despite all the risks of living in under LTTE control (involving, for instance, the constant risk of violence, abductions, forcible child conscription, cold-blooded murder of Tamil people who did not toe its line and more), there is next to no evidence that the LTTE resorted to sexual violence during the war years.
At this point, it is worth referring to the immediate context in which this comment was made. As this writer noted in her article published on 6th July 2018:
The immediate context in which Minister Maheswaran made this comment was an extremely pathetic incident [to quote from the ex-minister’s speech] — the case of a six-year old girl who was raped and murdered. Reports of girls and women facing high levels of sexual violence frequently come from the North and East.
There have been next to no news reports on the above incident in the Sri Lankan media. At this point, it is extremely important to highlight the issue at hand – violence against women and girls. The fact that such violence has taken high proportions in post-war Northern and Eastern Sri Lanka is the reality that transpires through the ex-minister’s speech. As a woman, and as an elected representative, the ex-minister has every right, and the fullest obligation to raise this issue not only at a public meeting in Jaffna, but also in the legislature and at all possible instances of government. It also needs to be reiterated that this is an issue that gets very sparse attention, which is in itself deeply problematic. If sexual violence is rife in the ex-war zone, we can forget all hopes of even a semblance of reconciliation.
On 8th September 2018, it was reported that the Attorney General had instructed the Inspector General of Police [IGP] to file a case against Ms Maheswaran under Section 120 of the Sri Lankan Penal Code. According to the Attorney General, indictments against Ms Maheswaran will be filed in the Court of Appeal.
Reporting and Documenting: A major issue?
It is of interest to examine how the Sri Lankan media [both state-run and private] refer to this incident. One private media outlet mentioned that the legal action was the result of a statement Ms Maheswaran “made about the LTTE”. Another [state-run] newspaper highlighted the legalities of indicting Mrs Maheswaran:
Former Child Affairs State Minister Vijayakala Maheswaran is to be indicted before the Court of Appeal under Article 157/A 3 for alleged violation of the provisions of the Constitution.
According to section 157A (1) of the Constitution, no person shall, directly or indirectly in or outside Sri Lanka, support, espouse, promote, finance, encourage or advocate the establishment of a separate State within the territory of Sri Lanka.
Any person who acts in contravention of the provisions of paragraph (1) shall, on conviction by the Court of Appeal, after trial on indictment and according to such procedure as may be prescribed by law, (a) be subject to civic disability for such period not exceeding seven years as may be determined by such Court: (b)forfeit his movable and immovable property other than such property as is determined by an order of such Court as being necessary for the sustenance of such person and his family and (c) not be entitled to civic rights for such period not exceeding seven years as may be determined by such Court.
None of these media reports bothered about the elephant in the room; they categoricaly avoided a single word about the issue Ms Maheswaran was evoking when she made her comment. They never bothered to provide the slightest explanation as to why she said what she said.
Taking up arms against Ms Maheswaran?
As per the Attorney General’s instructions to the IGP, action against Ms Maheswaran is to be taken as per the Criminal Procedure Code. This action follows a request made by the Speaker of Parliament, a Sinhalese man, to the Attorney General, yet another Sinhalese man, to examine if the words of Ms Maheswaran, a Tamil woman, – words uttered in relation to issues faced by Tamil women and girls – contravened the Constitution of the 2nd Republic. The IGP, who is now supposed to spearhead the action, is yet another Sinhalese man.
When Ms Maheswaran’s statement was made in July 2018, it instantly unsettled the Sinhalese polity, and the first people to rise up against Ms Maheswaran were Sinhalese male politicians. None of these men were the least bit concerned about the actual issue Ms Maheswaran was raising. Instead, their obsession fully revolved around an allusion Ms Maheswaran made, in making her point about sexual violence against women and girls.
Whether Ms Maheswaran should or should not have made that comment is not for this writer to comment upon. This writer does not condone Ms Maheswaran’s statement. However, she unconditionally stands for Ms Maheswaran’s freedom of speech and her agency, and for her right to articulate her political discourse without majoritarian interference or intimidation.
Like many commentators, this writer also pointed out the fact that Ms Maheswaran’s comment was couched in a somewhat problematic political agenda, as she has a past of deploying her power and influence to protect a perpetrator of sexual abuse and murder of a Tamil schoolgirl:
It has been amply reported in both Sinhalese and Tamil media that the ex-minister, who lamented sexual violence against women and girls was herself instrumental in providing protection to the main suspect of the brutal abuse and murder of Sivaloganathan Vithya.
Ms. Maheswaran’s speech therefore forces one to ask the inevitably ‘why now’ question.
Having used her powers to protect a sex offender [and murderer] of a young school girl, what prompts her to make such a statement of solidarity now? Where does the sudden awakening, if any, come from? Or was it a cautiously calculated political statement, to put herself forward as a heroine of the cause of women and girls in a polity dominated by geriatric men of the TNA, who, within their own party and in terms of public policy, are totally oblivious to anything like gender justice? This statement gives Ms. Maheswaran an unprecedented level of publicity and international attention. It gives her an opportunity to present herself as a tireless advocate, if not the only political voice that openly stands for the rights of Tamil women and girls in post-war Sri Lanka. If this were her strategy, it works, and the evidence can be seen in the loud cheers her speech received. Very soon, we are quite likely to hear her being quoted verbatim at Tiger flag-carrying Tamil nationalist protests and events across the West.
In this sense, one could even conclude that by this statement, Ms. Maheswaran has raised her political capital to a level much higher than occupying an obscure state minister position in the Joint Government.
Colombo’s Reaction: Deeply Problematic?
As noted above, it is clear that Ms Maheswaran’s statement was politically motivated. The reaction of the Government of Sri Lanka is perhaps what she expected. In other words, Colombo’s reaction puts Ms Maheswaran, who was not prominently present in the news until July 2018, in the spotlight. The indictment will now get tremendous publicity in Tamil nationalist media outlets and movements worldwide.
This is precisely the reason why Colombo’s reaction is extremely problematic, and even more ill thought-out than Ms Maheswaran’s statement.
Taking legal action against Ms Maheswaran equals an invitation to renewed [and totally futile] hostility with Tamil nationalism. It is suggestive of the inability of the Sri Lankan state to take a mature and dignified stance. Instead of focusing on taking legal action against one of the less than handful of Tamil women in politics under Section 120 of the Penal Code, it would have been in Colombo’s favour to have paid closer attention to Ms Maheswaran’s comments, and to the rationale that prompted her to say what she said. Legal action also sends a very negative signal to politically active Tamils, especially to women and youth, that post-war Sri Lanka is not a place where they are allowed to openly express their political views.
The advisable, and strategically advantageous reaction would have been, for example, the implementation of a Gender Justice Action Plan that focuses on issues of violence against women, systemic discrimination and issues pertaining to reproductive justice. This could have included consent education initiatives, and the introduction of context-specific and intersectionally oriented gender justice training to members of law enforcement bodies and armed forces stationed in the North and East. These are vital necessities, and their relevance is certainly not limited to the North and East. Had they been put in place in the Northern and Eastern provinces initially, that would have signified an intersectional and inclusive approach that could have been rolled out island-wide thereafter. An approach of this nature would have enabled Colombo to make the best out of a somewhat controversial claim, and deploy it to the Government’s advantage, especially on the external affairs front, when dealing with the UN as well as other international human rights mechanisms and platforms. Needless to reiterate that such a response would have prevented Ms Maheswaran from gaining additional media limelight. It would have prevented hardline Tamil nationalist groups from capitalising upon gender justice issues to advance their political agendas.
Most importantly, it would have helped address a vital issue that is an absolutely essential prerequisite for any reasonable dialogue on durable reconciliation to be advanced.
Instead, what Colombo is currently doing with Ms Maheswaran is the same error it has been repeatedly committing since the late 1950s – that of taking politically motivated knee-jerk action on ethnic minority-related issues, without in-depth evaluations of their short-term, medium-term and long-term consequences and implications. It is also a shameless reaction, which implies that a highly sexist government is in power, with a bunch of ethnic majority men in positions of power taking issue with an ethnic minority woman for raising issues that affect ethnic minority women and girls in the ex-war zone.
In other words, Colombo’s reaction is bad publicity for the Government of Sri Lanka, strategically hara-kiri in terms of gender justice policy, ethnonational politics and Sri Lanka’s international standing. It is good publicity to Ms Maheswaran and also to hardline hues of Tamil nationalism.
It is still not too late for a highly advisable policy U-turn.
*The writer [@fremancourt] is a gender justice advocate and political analyst.