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The Black July and the Non-consensual Peace

"A regime which denies the very existence of an ethnic problem and sabotages the final consensus its own All Parties Conference will not be able to build peace in the North except through main force. And that explains why the Rajapakses insist on maintaining a huge armed forces presence in the North."

by Tisaranee Gunasekara

“Stupidity has come back as a king – no; as an emperor, as a divine Führer of all Aryans.” - Aldous Huxley (Eyeless in Gaza)

(July 25, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) The Final Report of the APRC has been consigned to oblivion by the President; China is helping to build permanent camps and permanent housing facilities for the Armed Forces in the North. Juxtaposed together, these twin developments indicate the direction in which post-war Sri Lanka is headed.

A war, which was waged while denying the very existence of an ethnic problem, Tamil grievances or Tamil insecurities, and while insisting on the zero-casualty myth, cannot result in a consensual peace, unless the Lankan state consciously changes its trajectory. The above developments indicate that far from opting for a new trajectory, the Lankan state is renewing its commitment to the Sinhala supremacist path. A peace based on force and compulsion and a nation-building effort premised on inequality will be the inevitable outcomes of this course.

The APRC appointed by the President to come up with a political solution to the North-Eastern problem has prepared a Final Report and presented it to the President. According to parliamentarian Kariapper, “the APRC expected that President Rajapakse would commence a dialogue with the main opposition United National Party and the Tamil National Alliance, based on the final report of the APRC with a view to formulating a new constitution” (The Island – 20.7.2010). President Rajapakse therefore has a completely organic blueprint he can work on, if he wants to seize the moment and settle the ethnic issue. But he did the exact opposite; the Final Report was tucked away, out of the public eye, to gather dust in the darkness of obfuscation. Last week parliamentarians Yogarajan and Kariyappar decided to un-closet the Report, releasing it to the media and tabling it in parliament. The regime’s frenzied reaction to the latter action, and its demands that any reference to the Final Report be expunged from the Hansard prove that the Rajapakses acted with mala fide. The regime interred the APRC Final Report because the Rajapakses, as non-believers in an ethnic problem, are committed to sabotaging a political solution to the Ethnic problem.

The Absent Political Solution and A New Wave of Colonisation

The regime waged and won the Fourth Eelam War (launched by the LTTE) on a Sinhala supremacist platform, premised on denying the existence of an ethnic problem (this entailed massive human rights violations which are beginning to haunt us now). When the ethnic problem was reduced to a terrorist threat, a political solution was ruled out, by definition. The APRC was appointed not with a sincere intent but as a time buying devise, to appease Delhi and the West, until the Tigers were defeated. That is why, whenever the APRC produced some concrete result (such as the Majority Report of the Experts Committee), the Rajapakses moved to negate it, often with the help of their Sinhala supremacist allies.

The APRC Final Report seems a very moderate document, which circumvents controversial issues (such as the nature of the state) and tries to combine devolution with safeguards against separatism. But even such a moderate formula has no place in the vision of an unequal Sri Lanka, in which the Sinhalese are the rulers and the minorities are the ruled, fated by birth to lead a subordinate existence. If the Sinhalese are the hosts and the minorities are the guests, they have no intrinsic rights and no structural grievances. That was the vision which premised our ‘nation-building’ efforts since 1956. The Rajapakse Presidency has given a new lease of life to that old vision which was discredited by the war and abandoned after Indian intervention. Post-victory, that vision is informing and propelling the Rajapakse ‘nation-building’ project. The past has become the present.

A regime which denies the very existence of an ethnic problem and sabotages the final consensus its own All Parties Conference will not be able to build peace in the North except through main force. And that explains why the Rajapakses insist on maintaining a huge armed forces presence in the North. To make matters, plans to settle families of armed forces personnel in the North are being implemented at full speed. According to the Army Commander, “once married quarters of the officers and the other ranks are set up in respective areas, they would be able to live with their families as well while serving in the area” (The Island – 24.7.2010). The ubiquitous China is said to be helping in this massive building programme by making available pre-fabricated technology.

Though the exact number of service personnel stationed in the North is not known, it is logical to assume that the count will be in tens of thousands. Once the families of these men are imported and resettled, there will be a network of cantonment type Sinhala villages in the North, comprising of armed soldiers and their families. Other facilities will spring up soon enough, to cater to these newcomers, from Sinhala shops to Sinhala schools, from Sinhala place names and name boards to Buddhist places of worship. Incidentally, this Sinhala influx into the North cannot be compared to Tamils living amongst Sinhalese in large numbers in the South; that is the result of individual migration, and not of state-funded settlement. What the regime is planning to unleash in the North (and perhaps eventually in the East) is a new wave of state-aided and mandated colonisation with serving Sinhala soldiers instead of landless Sinhala farmers. The aim would be to break the contiguity of Tamil villages by interspersing them with military cantonments. These separate Sinhala enclaves within the Tamil province will act as control centres and as symbols of dominance. They will inspire not friendship and reconciliation but resentment and anger. After all, let us remember that this massive building programme for armed forces personnel and their families is taking place in a province teeming with displaced Tamils who lack basic facilities including an adequate roof over their heads.

A nation-building project premised on Sinhala supremacism (and the hosts and guests concept) will be as unsuccessful the second time as it was the first time. Before long the majority will feel (again) that this or that minority has too much of something or the other. Economic malaises, caused by Rajapakse incompetencies and the prioritising of guns over butter, will make the need for scapegoats even more acute. Vocal demands to protect the patrimony of the Sinhalese by tipping the playing field in their favour will follow, to counter either the Tamilnadu factor or the Middle Eastern factor or the Western factor or some other factor eternally working to undermine Sinhala-Buddhists and promote minorities! According to this worldview equality is ‘unfair’ because the dice is permanently ‘loaded’ against the Sinhala Buddhists (so we had to have Sinhala Only and standardisation etc, and Black July as a last resort). As the fear of being overtaken and overwhelmed by the minorities consumes us, we will become more irrational and intolerant, more prone to excesses and violence. And when the Tamils or some other minority resist these blatant injustices, they will be branded traitors and treated as such. That was the path to Black July.

The Return of the Plague Bacillus

Twenty Seven years ago, Black July burst upon Sri Lanka with the sudden ferocity of a flash flood. The omens of this bloody deluge was evident in the ‘language of contempt’ and the ‘dismissive attitude’ vis-à-vis Tamils which was de règale in Sinhala polity and society.

Black July, like most disasters which befell independent Sri Lanka, was a preventable tragedy. Had President Jayewardene honoured his 1977 election promise to come up with a political solution to the Tamil question, the Black July and the subsequent civil war could have been avoided. The UNP in 1977 was up to that task, objectively. It had a clear parliamentary majority; the SLFP was in retreat subsequent to its electoral trouncing; the JVP was of negligible import; and in the TULF, the regime had a moderate Tamil partner it could have worked with. But President Jayewardene’s authoritarian agenda made him equally inimical towards demands for democratisation in the South and devolution in the North; both sets of demands were categorised as ‘subversive’ and handled with unmerited severity. A historic opportunity to settle the ethnic issue in its infancy was thus lost, rendering most subsequent disasters, including the Black July, inevitable.

That failure to solve the Tamil question, together with the unjust proscription of the JVP, was JR Jayewardene’s greatest historic error. (Contrary to public perception, the B-C Pact was abandoned by SWRD Bandaranaike not because of Mr. Jayewardene’s infamous Kandy March but because of the protest by Buddhist monks, the first pillar of his Pancha Maha Balavegaya). Those twin and related errors plunged the country into concentric cycles of violence and destroyed Mr. Jayewardene’s dream of a third presidential term. Post-war, Mahinda Rajapakse could have moved swiftly to devolve and democratise, two necessary preconditions for consensual nation-building. He did not, partly because of his Sinhala supremacist mindset (he does not believe in the existence of an ethnic problem) and partly because he abhors sharing power with anyone outside his family. Just as JR Jayewardene’s authoritarian project impeded a political solution to the Tamil question, the Dynastic project of the Rajapakses are rendering impossible a consensual peace based on reconciliation.

Bertrand Russell in his essay ‘The Ancestry of Fascism’ highlights the correlation between changes of ‘intellectual temper’ and changes in the ‘tone of politics’: “It is important to remember that political events very frequently take their colour from the speculation of an earlier time” (In Praise of Idleness). It took years and years of anti-Tamil hysteria to create the Black July, endless fear-mongering of how ‘they’ are taking ‘our’ land, ‘our’ universities, ‘our’ jobs and ‘our’ country. Hate-mongering against minorities usually begins at the fringes of the polity and creep inwards and upwards, if and when spaces open up in the mainstream. The danger becomes particularly acute if the mainstream parties open doors for these extremist elements out of political expediency and economic malaise compels the search for scapegoats.

Fortunately a complete retrogression is still avoidable. The mere fact that the APRC managed to produce a Final Report is a minor miracle. The Rajapakses must not be allowed to bury it, again. The Report must be studied and debated, including in the parliament. The UNP must place it on the agenda in its discussions with the President about constitutional reforms. India and the international community must be lobbied to put pressure on the regime to implement the Final Report of its own APRC. Here is a realistic cause, an organic solution, for the minority parties to champion (especially the EPDP and the CWC) and the Tamil Diaspora to promote, if they are serious about a just and a consensual peace. If we fail, retrogression will be our fate; the past will return complete with old and new horrors, including the psychological plague bacillus which enabled that abomination, the Black July.

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