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Tamils in Post-war Sri Lanka

By Tisaranee Gunasekara

“Prime Minister DM Jayaratne warned this morning that a new military wing of the LTTE is forming to seek a separate state and as such the Emergency Regulations should continue”.- Daily Mirror (5.5.2010)

(May 10, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) During his Thimpu powwow with the Indian Premier, President Mahinda Rajapakse promised to appoint an experts panel to study the underlying reasons for the Eelam War. Will India take this latest, somewhat nebulous, pledge seriously, despite the many preceding broken promises? Post-war, Delhi has little ability to push Sri Lanka towards a devolution-based political solution. That incapacity, coupled with a need to prevent an even closer association between Colombo and Beijing (and Islamabad), may have compelled Delhi to clutch at this latest Rajapakse charade as a welcome face-saver.

And charade it is. The newest Rajapakse promise was given considerable publicity in the Indian media and hardly any in the Lankan media (including in the state media). That in itself is telling. In any case, appointing commissions, committees and panels is a favourite Rajapakse method of prevarication. For instance, the IIGEP (International Independent Group of Eminent Persons), set up with much fanfare, was but a ploy to evade Indian and international pressure about human rights violations. Once the pressure subsided, the IIGEP was attacked by Rajapakse proxies; it eventually ceased to exist without achieving any of its stated aims. The Sisyphean labour of the APC is another case in point; whenever a concrete result emerged, the President rejected it and sent the APC back to the drawing board.

Mahinda Rajapakse is a maestro of evasion. His handling of l’affaire Nawalapitiya starkly illustrates his eel like ability to slither out of a tight corner without conceding any real ground. Election in Nawalapitiya was marred by violence and malpractices; an avid Rajapakse worshipper was believed to be the main culprit. Once the Elections Commissioner annulled polling in the area, denial became impossible. Instead a concerted effort was made via well targeted leaks to the media to create the impression that the President deplored the conduct of his henchman. This impression was solidified by the appointment of a panel of lawyers to investigate the issue. The ploy worked; many believed that the Panel will name the culprit and the President will punish him by denying him a portfolio. Once public interest subsided, the Panel delivered a report which exonerated the culprit by finding none guilty (Are we to believe that the electoral crimes in Nawalapitiya were committed by a mysterious entity, without name or form?). The culprit was rewarded with a deputy ministership while the district leader who condemned his deeds was punished with a humiliating demotion. The fate of Sarath Amunugama, who publicly criticised the electoral antics of a Presidential pet, is also a warning to those UPFA politicos who try to maintain a vestige of autonomy and self-respect, vis-à-vis the Ruling Family. L’affaire Nawalapitiya is not just a superb exposition of the Rajapakse method and mindset; it also demonstrates that only total non-vertebrates can make it in Rajapakse ruled Sri Lanka.

The Impossibility of Devolution

While Indian media was sounding optimistic about the latest Rajapakse pledge, the well informed Irida Divayina in its May 2nd issue (front page lead) announced that the regime is thinking of setting up a ‘Jana Sabha’ system (village councils) ‘to ensure that the benefits of development accrue to the people’. Each Grama Niladari division will have a Jana Sabha consisting of the inhabitants of the area (this would mean 14,800 councils). University graduates will be appointed as secretaries of these councils (a clever way of alleviating the problem of graduate unemployment). “The government believes that by devolving power this way, the objectives of the Mahinda Chinthana will be brought close to people. Once power is devolved up to the Janasabha level, further devolution will be unnecessary and the government hopes to provide the people with adequate resources and economic strength this way” (emphasis mine).

The LTTE and Vellupillai Pirapaharan were past masters at creating illusions of cooperation and moderation while pursuing their maximalist agenda. Even if the President honours his promise to the Indian premier by appointing a ‘Experts Panel’ happens, it too will be nothing more than a politico-diplomatic sleight of hand, a sop to Delhi and a ploy to regain GSP+, without making any real concessions to the Tamils. If the President is the appointing authority, the panel can be stocked with ‘ethnic problem deniers’, rendering a concrete result endemically impossible. If it is to be an ‘all party affair’, the Rajapakses will use the UPFA nominees to delay and subvert it. Even if a concrete result does emerge, the President can reject it, as he rejected the sensible and forward looking set of proposals made by the Experts Panel of the APC (many of us, being ‘young and foolish’ – ignorant in the ways of the Rajapakses – believed in the APC then, and welcomed the Majority Report of its Experts Panel enthusiastically).

It is illogical to expect any real devolution of power to happen under the Rajapakses. There is a symbiotic relationship between the Ruling Family and Sinhala supremacism. Sinhala supremacism provided the Rajapakses with an attractive mantle for their naked power agenda via patriotism. And by attaching themselves to the Rajapakse Juggernaut, Sinhala supremacists in turn gained more power and influence than they ever had, including in 1956. Had the Rajapakses tried to impose familial rule without the cover of patriotism, they would have encountered far more dissent in the South. The Rajapakse project would not have been able to achieve hegemonic status without the patriotic mantle and the patriotic mantle was a reward not for fighting the LTTE (Presidents Premadasa and Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga did that) but for fighting the LTTE and Tamil nationalism in all its forms (by denying the existence of an ethnic problem and by revoking key concessions made to Tamils under Indian pressure, the Rajapakses proved their ‘patriotic’ bona fides). Thus Rajapakses cannot ditch Sinhala supremacism anymore than Sinhala supremacists can ditch the Rajapakses (as Gen. Fonseka found out to his cost). Consequently a political solution to the ethnic problem on the basis of enhanced devolution (or even the full implementation of the 13th Amendment let alone 13th Amendment plus) is impossible under Rajapakse Rule (except as a desperate survival tactic in the face of external intervention).

The Rajapakses will not devolve power for another reason – because they are not inclined to share power with anyone. As the latest cabinet appointments indicate, the Family is intent on concentrating as much power as possible in the hands of the Family. For instance, President Rajapakse has under his control 77 state institutions. Basil Rajapakse is indeed the Economic Czar of the new regime: “The economic development ministry will play a major role in the country’s development as key institutions relating to investment and tourism are functioning under it. In addition, all regional development programmes including District Development programmes will be implemented under the direct supervision of this ministry. The Board of Investment which was under the Enterprise and Investment Promotion Ministry in the last Cabinet has been placed under the Economic Development Ministry while the institutions which were functioning under the Nation Building and the Tourism Ministries have been brought under this ministry…” (The Daily News – 5.5.2010). Given the Rajapakses’ disinclination to share power at the centre, even with members of the ruling UPFA, will they willingly share power with Tamils and Muslims, who they probably deem untrustworthy, if not hostile?

Post-election, the Rajapaksaisation of the Lankan state has become more vigorous. A constitutional amendment extending/removing Presidential term limits is expected within the year. The President has allocated funds for state expenditure from the Consolidated Fund, without a Vote on Account, usurping parliamentary powers and creating another dangerous precedent. Mr. Rajapakse is reportedly planning to may take over the Attorney General’s Department. Namal Rajapakse not only accompanied his father to the Thimpu SAARC Summit; though a very junior parliamentarian, he sat next to the Foreign Minister at the bilateral meetings between the President and other regional leaders – an indication of the dynastic ambitions of the Rajapakses. A Sri Lankan future is impossible without a political solution to the ethnic problem, but a political solution to the ethnic problem is impossible so long as the Rajapakses rule Sri Lanka.

Uthuru Wasanthaya?

Does a spring of hope await the North or an autumn of discontent? The partial relaxation of the Emergency was accompanied by the warning of an armed Tiger resurgence – an ideal excuse to justify the continuation of a large military presence in the North and the resultant stifling of democratic rights. The government seems to be settling Sinhalese in traditional Tamil areas (individual Sinhalese buying land and starting businesses in Tamil areas is different from state sponsored settlement programmes). A programme aired on France 24 TV highlighted the plight of Tamil fishermen who were uprooted from their traditional sea side habitats and housed inland, while their old houses were given to Sinhala fishermen and the Army. As a result the Tamil fishermen have been effectively deprived of their livelihood.

A Sinhala supremacist regime cannot but look askance at any expression of Tamil nationalism. Such a government would see nothing wrong in destroying any and all monuments associated with the LTTE, including graves. It would also accord priority to erecting monuments to Lankan Forces and to building Buddha statues, rather than to the resettlement of the displaced and the revitalisation of the economy. Such a regime would also lay claim to the North and the East, by unearthing ancient ruins than by winning the Tamils over to the idea of a Sri Lanka future.

Separatist ideas survive not in monuments but in the hearts and minds of the people. If Tamils are treated as enemy aliens in an occupied territory, if they are deprived of the rights and the freedoms we take for granted, if they are uprooted from their traditional lands and deprived of their traditional ways of life, then the cause of separatism can thrive again, even if all the Tiger graves and monuments are razed to the ground and a Buddha statue or a monument to Lankan soldiers adorn every junction. The priority should not be the building of new monuments (including Buddha statues) or destruction of old ones or archaeology. It should be ensuring as normal a life as possible for the Tamils, as soon as possible. This includes not just economic development but also civic freedom; Tamils must feel that they are free people in their own land. If the Tamils feel that they are under the jackboot of a colonial master, that they are the subjects of an alien power, then separatism will raise its head again, despite all the security precautions.

The Tamils are in this political cul-de-sac, thanks to the LTTE’s maximalism. Hopefully a new generation of democratic and moderate leaders will emerge from the ashes of defeat. Just as the LTTE sought to be the sole representative of Tamils, the Rajapakses want to become Sri Lanka. And yet the Rajapakses are not Sri Lanka and opposing them is not tantamount to rejecting the idea of a Sri Lankan future. The growing economic crisis can widen the oppositional space in the South (especially if Sri Lanka is compelled to go the Greece way, eventually) and democratic Tamils may then be able to build alliances with those sectors affected by the errors and excesses of Rajapakse Rule. Hope is not an apt word in the current Lankan context, but a new crisis can provide the Lankan democracy with a chance of renewal. In such a context, a moderate Tamil nationalism may get the opportunity to include a devolution-based political solution to the ethnic problem in the agenda of de-Rajapaksaisation and overall democratisation.

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