The Rajapakse Presidency (Part VII)

by Tisaranee Gunasekara

"…going forward boldly into the future in search of an imaginary past"
Michael Burleigh (The Third Reich: A New History)

VII - Sri Lanka in the World

(July 30, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) If President Rajapakse’s inheritance was a mix of positives and negatives on the domestic front, on the international front it was almost uniformly positive. By the time he assumed the Presidency the LTTE had made itself unwelcome in many a Western capital. This process of self-discrediting climaxed with the Tiger enforced boycott of the Presidential election. Most Western countries had wanted a Ranil Wickremesinghe victory and were bitterly disappointed about the LTTE’s role in preventing it.

During the first few months of Rajapakse Presidency the international situation continued to improve for Sri Lanka and deteriorate for the LTTE. As the Tigers stepped up their anti-democratic and anti-civilisational activities their international isolation increased. Appalled by the LTTE’s conduct, reputed international non-governmental organisations, such as the Human Rights Watch and the Amnesty International, stepped up their efforts to chastise, isolate and weaken it globally. Anti-Tiger Tamils in the Diaspora came out openly against the Tigers, condemning the LTTE’s atrocities in Sri Lanka as well as its horrendous conduct in most European countries. The EU ban marked the zenith of this anti-LTTE effort.

Sri Lanka could and should have capitalised on these favourable circumstances. At this point the international community’s focus was not on a political solution but on human rights and, in the absence of war, the main culprit was the LTTE. The Tigers became international untouchables because they conscripted children, murdered dissenters and imposed a reign of terror on Tamil expatriates. But the LTTE would not learn from its mistakes, would not mend its ways, even in its own interests. And with the advent of Rajapakse rule, Sri Lanka too began to tread the same counterproductive path.

A little more flexibility on human rights, a little more willingness to accommodate Tamil and Western/Indian concerns would have enabled Sri Lanka to retain the high level of international support she enjoyed in April 2006. It was not the war in itself which led to the undermining of Sri Lanka internationally; it was the callousness displayed by the Lankan state – from top to bottom – towards the safety and wellbeing of unarmed civilian Tamils caught in the war. As anti-terrorist measures degenerated into anti-Tamil measures, the sympathy Sri Lanka had enjoyed hitherto began to ebb. It was not that the world became pro-Tiger; it was that many a country and INGO began to see less and less difference between the Tigers and the Rajapakse administration in their treatment of non-combatants. The crux of the problem therefore was not so much the regime’s determination to resist the LTTE (generally accepted, except perhaps by a couple of recalcitrants like Norway) but the partiality based on ethnicity which characterised many of its actions.

25 years ago Sri Lanka attained global fame via notoriety. It was Black July, that pageant of murder and destruction, which made Sri Lanka grab the attention of the world, perhaps as never before. Though this first memory became subsumed by the anti-civilisational conduct of the LTTE, it did not die and was resurrected as the Rajapakse regime began to talk and act in an increasingly Sinhala supremacist manner. Sri Lanka seemed to be on a return journey to the time before the Indo-Lanka Accord, a time when the state and the government represented the Sinhalese (primarily and at times solely) and were unconcerned about the fate of the country’s Tamil citizens - symbolised by the indifference with which it responded to Black July and to subsequent acts of brutality by the Lankan Forces against civilian Tamils during the First Eelam War.

As soon as he assumed the Presidency Rajapakse announced that he had decided to address Colombo diplomats in the Sinhala language. Given the identity of some of his allies and his own predilections, the image this announced gave rise to was ‘Sinhala Only’. If this announcement mentioned that the President would talk in Sinhala because it was the language he was most comfortable in no ill effects would have been generated. But the announcement categorised this decision as a part of the President’s effort at favouring everything ‘desheeya’ (national), of making the administration ‘desheeya’. This inevitably implied an equalisation between ‘national’ and ‘Sinhala’, which was the basis of the ‘Sinhala Only’ and the main cause for the current conflict. The decision was later abandoned, but the entire faux pas was symbolic of the bumbling manner in which the new administration dealt with Tamil sensibilities and the wrong signals it sent the international community. Such mistakes served to enhance the impression of a majoritarian bias in the thinking and the actions of the regime. This assumed ever greater significance when the Fourth Eelam War began and a clear line of demarcation had to be drawn between Tamil and Tigers in order to prevent the war from assuming the from of racial conflict Vellupillai Pirapaharan wanted it to be.

Samuel Huntingdon in his seminal essay ‘The Clash of Civilisations’ opined, “It is my hypothesis that the fundamental source of conflict in this new world will not be primarily ideological or primarily economic. The great divisions among humankind and the dominating source of conflict will be cultural. Nation states will remain the most powerful actors in world affairs, but the principal conflicts of global politics will occur between nations and groups of different civilizations. The clash of civilizations will be the battle lines of the future” (Foreign Affairs – Summer 1993). The Sinhala supremacists have a similar view of the march of history; their own version of ‘the clash of civilisations’ pits Sri Lanka against the ‘Christian, Islamic and Hindu worlds’; in this picture the entire non-Buddhist world is intent on destroying the pristine Sinhala Buddhist civilisation of Sri Lanka. This sense of perennial victimhood has coloured the way we think the world should see us.

In a less extreme version, this ‘theory’ allows a common struggle of all Buddhist countries; in the more extreme version the struggle is also against the non-pristine versions of Buddhism, particularly Mahayana. Accordingly Sri Lanka is alone in the world, except for the other two Theravada Buddhist countries, Thailand and Burma. Even Japan is suspect because it follows a Buddhism that is incorrect and therefore cannot but want to destroy the correct Buddhism that is in Sri Lanka at some point. This outlook is made possible by that most enduring of Sinhala Buddhist myths, which claims Lanka to have been entrusted to the Sakra (the chief of gods) by Buddha, just before parinirvana, as the land in which his dhamma would survive: “Vijaya, son of king Sihabahu, is come to Lanka from the country of Lala, together with seven hundred followers. In Lank, O lord of gods, will my religion be established, therefore carefully protect him with his followers and Lanka” (Mahavamsa).

This myth of the chosen land, which is an article of faith in Sinhala Buddhism, has resulted in a mindset characterised by a persecution complex and xenophobia. This is the only country of Sinhala Buddhists and non-Sinhala Buddhists, here and elsewhere, want it to be destroyed. As the tempo of the unofficial Eelam War increased, the way in which the government viewed the world began to be coloured by this view. This inherently extremist viewpoint made compromises almost impossible. Even possible and necessary compromises were seen as acts of betrayals; flexibility was regarded as weakness and caution was perceived as cowardice. The end result was an ‘in your face’ foreign policy, which is needlessly and counterproductively confrontational.
Extremism in any field, in order to survive, has to abandon reality since reality casts into sharp relief the dangers (and the absurdity) of extremism. It was no different in Sri Lanka. The Rajapakse approach to the world could not be maintained without an unreal interpretation of reality. Even as the country’s international relations began to deteriorate, the regime went into a curious combination of denial and defiance. On the one hand it was claimed that the entire world supports Sri Lanka and its President; on the other hand it was said that Sri Lanka does not need the West (and at times India) because real friends such as Pakistan, China and Iran would suffice. As false hope and defiance followed each other in endless succession, no real effort was made to arrest the declining acceptance of Sri Lanka on the world stage.

The best case in point is the disastrous way in which the Mutur case was handled internationally. When international criticism started to mount, the government in order to deflect it, appointed a committee comprising of nominees of a number of countries to oversee the work of the Presidential Commission appointed to look into 16 cases of human rights violations including the Mutur massacre. The regime instead of trying to work together with the IIGEP began picking quarrels with it, and in public. Suddenly the IIGEP became an enemy to be confronted with and defeated at any cost. A ferocious propaganda assault culminated with the withdrawal of the IIGEP - which did nothing to improve Sri Lanka’s stock in the world. Such mess-ups have a snowball effect, though the government fails to realise it. The IIGEP disaster would have contributed to Sri Lanka’s humiliating defeat at the UNHRC election in New York; it is also likely to affect the country’s chances of regaining the GSP+ facility since France’s Foreign Minister, Bernard Kouchner, was once his country’s nominee for the IIGEP.

Sri Lanka’s relations with the EU are unlikely to improve in the near future. Her relations with the US too are likely to deteriorate further, with the end of Bush Presidency. Things will get infinitely worse if Barrack Obama takes over the White House in 2008; even if the next incumbent is John McCain, he may not be sympathetic to Sri Lanka’s woes. The government’s current policy of silencing India through economic concessions too cannot work over a long period of time, as the CEPA saga demonstrates. In addition, the Tamilnadu factor will become more important to Delhi as national elections draw near. The Tamilnadu factor works in two ways - because of it India would not want a separate Tamil country coming into being on her Southern doorstep; but also because of it India has to stand for maximum devolution for the Tamil people within a united Sri Lanka. India’s real concern is neither Sri Lanka nor Sri Lankan Tamils but the security of the Union of India; consequently it is important to keep Tamilnadu reasonably appeased. This can be achieved with neither Tamil/Tiger Eelam nor unitary Sri Lanka. One will make the Tamilnadu Tamils discontent with their lot; the other will make them angry about the injustice suffered by their Lankan cousins. Consequently in the coming months one may see a hardening of India’s position. Its priority is likely to be a political solution; given the West’s focus on human rights Sri Lanka will face increased pressure on both fronts as the year wends to its end and 2009 begins.

It is important to understand the parameters. India and the West are not pro-Tiger bur they are pro-Tamil, because in their eyes, the real victims of this war are the civilian Tamils. Thus they want to ensure a fair deal for the Tamils, in the form of improved human rights and a solution to the ethnic problem based on power sharing between the majority Sinhalese and the minority Tamils. Sri Lanka’s position in the world is likely to go from bad to worse if the Rajapakses continue to ignore this inescapable and immutable reality.
- Sri Lanka Guardian