February 2013


Doctrine divides, Action unites

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He’d Nail the Coffin so We Could Have a New Lanka—Post 2013

Kusal Perera

Events in Sri Lanka over the decades since independence in 1948
have indicated to Tamils that they are displaced in their country
even when they are not confined in camps.
(Photo from www.greenleft.org.au)

I was born in independent “Ceylon.” I never migrated to any country and never lived outside this country, even for a short spell. Now I sit reading about last minute preparations for the 65th Independence Day celebrations of “Sri Lanka.” This time in the eastern port city of Trincomalee. Looking back, I wonder if this is the same country we grew up in.

In early post-independent Ceylon, we went to school, played and fought together while growing up together with Susils and Upuls, Sivams and Eswarans, Brians and Marios. It didn’t matter which language one spoke and what Buddhist temple, Hindu kovil or Christian church the other went to. I was admitted to Greenlands College—down Greenlands Road adjoining Havelock Park—but left Isipathana Maha Vidyalaya on Isipathana Mawatha, now adjoining Sir Henry Pedris Udyanaya. Yet I never changed schools.

While in primary school, we were rushed home once through Galle Road with burning boutiques and goons going down lanes, leaving houses going up in smoke. Next morning we woke up to see the military patrolling our road while two small khaki tents were being erected in the esplanade next to our lane. Still growing up together as before, we did not notice “Allan Avenue” becoming “Dharmapala Mawatha,” some who wore white drill long trousers changing to white poplin, “redda-baniyama” called the “national” dress and vehicle number plates changing from “EY” and “EN” to “1 Sri” to “2 Sri” and then to “3 Sri.”

It took a little longer to understand what all that meant to post-independent Ceylon, later turned into the “independent and sovereign” State called the Republic of Sri Lanka. It took even a longer time to understand what it would all mean for present-day little kids—Sinhala, Tamil or Muslim (no more Burghers here)—who would not know how rich a kid’s life is, playing and growing together in a trilingual, multireligious and multicultural neighborhood—a dynamic milieu that does not stop to question diversity but moves along, living the benefits of that diverse milieu. It is one that allows a larger life than what their young parents would applaud for when President Mahinda Rajapaksa promises “postwar” comfort without “terrorism” from the Independence Day podium in Trincomalee, celebrating 65 years of independence from British colonial rule.

We’ve not gained anything better or more than what was offered to us at “independence.” Sixty-five years ago the first elected government hastily moved to disfranchise more than half a million people from a population of almost seven million. The single largest contributor to our economy was made “stateless” overnight on a soil that they were required to toil for a measly daily wage in order to eke out a living but still contribute as before to an economy of a country to which they were now aliens. Moreover, 57 years ago, from a total population of about 8.5 million, around 2.6 million were dislodged from the State and its effective functions with the Sinhala language made the ONLY official language of the State.

With two gaping holes made in the fabric of our society within eight years from independence, the majority Sinhala constituency travelled along regardless. We’ve now come to what is called a “postwar” era. Sinhala extremism wanted to believe, and they learnt to believe, that the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) could only be defeated militarily. Theorists for this “Sinhala school of thought” argued that no political solution could be negotiated with the LTTE around. Therefore, no social mindset was allowed in the Sinhala South that would accommodate a political solution, and that to be negotiated. It was all “gung ho” for a war with its brutality never talked of. Yet this postwar era is not what the Sinhala majority said it would be after the “Tamil Tigers” are defeated.

The LTTE was not seen and accepted as the outgrowth of “majoritarian extremism” that sabotaged the political compromise for independence 65 years ago. The list of broken promises and agreements—marginalizing from the State that was taken over by Sinhala political extremism, communal thuggery let loose on life, repression ordered against Tamil civil rights campaigns, a long history of almost two-and-a-half decades of political uprooting until the 1972 Republican Constitution—was comfortably forgotten as the ground which created and nurtured the radicalizing of Tamil politics and its transformation from democratic agitations to armed insurgency.

The period from there to the next “Republican Constitution” in 1978 with an executive presidency made it far worse. With an unprecedented majority in the history of post-independence parliamentary elections that in 1977 gave President J. R. Jayawardne 140 members of Parliament (MPs) in a Parliament of 168 seats, the year 1983 was turned black with politically jealous scheming after the referendum in December 1982 that postponed elections for six more years.

There was nothing spontaneous in that July pogrom of 1983 against the Tamil people. Hardly a fortnight before the pogrom, President Jayawardne was quoted by Ian Ward in the London Daily Telegraph of July 11 as saying, “I am not worried about the opinion of the Jaffna people now. . . . Now we cannot think of them, not about their lives or of their opinion about us. . . . The more you put pressure in the North, the happier the Sinhala people will be here. . . . [R]eally, if I starve the Tamils out, the Sinhala people will be happy.”

After the pogrom that devastated the lives of many thousands of Tamil people and the reputation of Sinhala Buddhists as a compassionate and hospitable set of people, Gamini Dissanayake, minister of land and land development and the president of the Lanka Jathika Estate Workers’ Union, told its executive committee on Sept. 5 the same year: “We have decided to colonize four districts, including Mannar, with Sinhalese people by destroying the forests. A majority of Sinhalese will be settled there. If you like, you also can migrate there.” (N. Shanmugathasan, Sri Lanka: The Story of the Holocaust [1984], p. 74)

This war by the Rajapaksas was ideologically and politically the continuation of President Jayawardne’s Sinhala supremacist approach to the Tamil political conflict. If it wasn’t for such dominant executive power with overall control over a huge majority in Parliament, Jayawardne would not have treaded such a blatantly racist path. Almost a quarter century later it was that same executive power in the hands of President Rajapaksa and a far more subordinate Parliament which helped the war and then helps everything else that comes after war. Everything the Sinhala South thought would not be their lot in postwar Sri Lanka is now theirs to stay.

The war has only made the Rajapaksas “great.” The euphoria, hyped and cultivated by the Rajapaksa regime, helped it to shelve the 17th Amendment and install the 18th Amendment to the Constitution. That left two major aberrations—(1) a totally politicized State allowing for politically calculated severe corruption and (2) a presidency that now can be extended to an unlimited number of terms. Such onerous usurping and accruing of political power has been used to militarize the Tamil North and politicize the Sinhala village. Most violence and crimes in Sinhala rural life thus have two very conspicuous factors—(1) the ruling political party agents, like Pradeshiya Sabha members, and organizers commit most crimes and (2) war-making weapons are plentifully available for easy money—a reflection of the total breakdown of law and order in a heavily corrupt society, contradicting the postwar expectations of the Sinhala people.

With such arrogant and corrupt power, this regime is on no road to economic stability and growth. Figures arranged in glittering formations to the liking of the Central Bank boss do not reflect how people live in this economy. It’s the Dept. of Census and Statistics (DCS) that would tell one that the minimum monthly cost required for a family of four to just “exist” with bare minimum necessities and food that provides the minimum calories necessary. The latest available Survey on Household Incomes and Expenditures—2009/2010 by the DCS reveals that the monthly cost of food alone for a family in Colombo District is 16,121 rupees (US$127) and the same in Jaffna District is 14,878 rupees (US$118). These figures give an average of 15,500 rupees (US$122) as necessary for food alone, which is said to be only 35 percent of the family requirement for a whole month. Thus, the minimum “living cost” in Sri Lanka in 2010 was, on average, 44,500 rupees (US$352). With an inflation rate of 9.8 percent recorded this January, any family would now need a minimum “living cost” of 50,000 rupees (US$395) per month, and it continues to go up.

Nothing more needs to be said about this economy, which is being plundered right royally. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) has never helped any country restore itself to saner economic management and out of catastrophe. The next negotiated IMF loan by this Rajapaksa regime would therefore not help the Sri Lankan people. It may help this regime though to hold on to a declining economy that is managed by wholly corrupt men in right places in a fast collapsing law and order situation. The North and Tamil life is being finely meshed in within military control. The recommendations of the president’s own Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) are rubbished by a military report on war. The usual ploy, however, in hoisting a demon-in-waiting at the Sinhala gate—this time “halal” and the Muslims—would not work as the previous demon did. Legitimizing a rogue organization by giving them an audience at the president’s home of Temple Trees would not also work that fast and that surreptitiously.

For a person with more than four decades of popular politics in him, no expert is necessary to tell him that it is now time to tighten the screws on every aspect of decent human living. The apex courts have thus come under the Rajapaksa regime with an impeachment in Parliament ousting the 43rd chief justice of Sri Lanka in order to install a much corroded personality as the 44th chief justice. If—yes, IF—the tide goes beyond that of a normal swell, the Rajapaksas are now all set to drive the last nail on the fast decaying democratic life of Sri Lanka. The elections, one to elect the next Parliament, are at stake and will stand threatened with a chief justice who will interpret the Constitution without any bias toward the people.

What and where could the answer be—the alternative?

The two main players to date—those who have been working hard with the international community and those in the Sinhala opposition working hard to outdo Rajapaksa as a Sinhala leader—will never help produce an alternative to Rajapaksa. The international community will not go beyond a carefully worded statement that can satisfy their own pressure groups and human rights lobbies. Next March and the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) will once again extend its right to review Sri Lanka until the next UNHRC—maybe with another resolution and their human rights lobbies told that all is under control. The Rajapaksas will tell their Sinhala constituency the same: all is under control. The international community is now well understood by President Rajapaksa as a spent cartridge. With the other player, none can outfox a scheming Sinhala leader holding onto power from the opposition that does not even have Sinhala trader backing. But, that said, let us not forget, with the Rajapaksas working overtime to drive the final nail in the coffin of democratic and economic life in this country, that it is what allows for an alternative to be debated within that brewing political crisis. Sixty-five years after independence that could be the Rajapaksa contribution in getting out of a total mess.

Human societies just don’t give in. There is always a fight back, I believe, for the better.

* This article was published on Feb. 4, 2013, by the Colombo Telegraph, a public interest web site that relates to Sri Lankan issues and is operated by a group of exile journalists at <www.colombotelegraph.com>.