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Looking Beyond The Political Polemic

| by Kishali Pinto-Jayawardena

( June 1, 2014, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) A particularly cynical colleague of mine, incidentally a practicing Buddhist who is enormously scornful of cultural traditions which he maintains has twisted the essence of Buddhism, has long been preoccupied as to why, (in his opinion), the late President Ranasinghe Premadasa was demonized as the killer of children while President Mahinda Rajapaksa has escaped this tag in the ‘majority’ perception.

The dangers of sweeping generalizations

Both were/are Heads of State whose terms became indelibly stamped with deaths and disappearances. Under the first, the Sinhalese were killed in state terror countering Southern insurgent threats in the eighties. Under the second, defenseless Tamil civilians were trapped in a No-Fire Zone during the Vanni war with the LTTE in 2009, which incidentally should have been more aptly named as the All-Fire Zone. In his thinking, the ethnicity of the human targets is the crucial reason for this seeming differentiation in popular perceptions.

But as with all sweeping generalizations, this explanation which assumes that the Sinhalese people collectively fall into a racist mindset which equals the shrill tones of their post-war political leaders, is somewhat flawed. Perhaps this is an assessment which may be truer of the general articulations of the Sinhalese middle class in the public (and private) space/s rather than as an assessment of the Sinhalese people as a whole. 

First, the assumed popular demonizing of President Premadasa does not conform strictly to the truth. The outpouring of public grief at his funeral and the constant recalling of him as a President who cared for the people, are notable factors. These are somewhat uncomfortable realities when set against condemnation of gross abuses of human rights in his time.

A mistaken assumption of wholesale approval

Last year in Komari, a locality bordering Pottuvil, a Sinhalese fisherman suddenly punctuated his conversation with an unexpected lamentation that after President Premadasa had taken steps to improve the lot of the people in that area, no other President had ever bothered since. These are stray strands of conversation which still disconcertingly emerge from rural localities.

Second, the assumption that President Rajapaksa has been given a clean slate by the Southern polity despite violations of human rights under his watch is likewise riddled with fallacy. Inferring wholesale approval solely through election victories is not a good measure. In fact, this only buys into the frequent complaint of the President himself when he protests that he is winning elections all the time, hence bothersome foreign interference is not needed.

These election triumphs need to be weighed against a host of countervailing factors, most importantly the utter absence of a credible oppositional candidate, the near total control of the media along with shrewdly placed government patronage systems using inducement coupled with threat.

Broader state reform should be a collective concern

I use these arguments to enter into a debate which has become quite fashionable in some circles regarding what is referred to as the hegemonic Sinhala Buddhist project. Such captivating terminology may be true of Sri Lanka’s political leaders along with their distastefully power hungry ideologues. Evidently, the current political dispensation represents the zenith of the same. For that matter, a justifiable critique may be made of Tamil political leaders and their ideologues which are problematic in their own way.

Regardless, in the present political climate, there are grave pitfalls in subsuming the entirety of the Sinhalese polity into such bogey-man collectivity. Moreover, this assumption is dangerously coupled by some to assert that in consequence thereof, the Tamil citizenry should not prioritise broad questions of state reform in Sri Lanka. Instead, as the argument goes, their focus should be exclusively on the fostering and building up of the Tamil nation.

This is nonsensical and counterproductive polemic. Reform of the Sri Lankan nation state should be an initiative across all ethnicities, now more than ever before. To be clear, this is not just to call for the demolition of the Executive Presidency, the rejuvenation of the 17th Amendment or even regime change. That is to be unconscionably childlike. Rather, our conceptions of equal rights, constitutional government and political consciousness need to be re-imagined and directed towards collective political accountability as well as the responsibility of those who for long, were called the intellectual elite.

Learning from trenchant histories

A recent book which I co-authored established a conclusive link between judicial failures and historic political failures in regard to minority rights across language, land rights and religious rights, not only due process guarantees. While the severity of this differentiation should not be underestimated, it would be the height of absurdity to maintain that the monstrously evolved Sri Lankan national security state has affected only the minorities. Supreme judicial conservatism in this respect has traditionally had a wider base.

This is indicated very well in an earlier study looking at comprehensive data which established an unacceptable percentage of dismissals (near to 80%) by Sinhalese judges of habeas corpus petitions relating to ‘disappeared’ Sinhalese victims in the eighties. In both these contexts, exceptional precedents had little impact on overall negative judicial outcomes. Important lessons can be learnt from these trenchant histories. This is not to downplay what the minorities have suffered in Sri Lanka or indeed what they are suffering now. On the contrary, this is to import an element of much needed commonsense rather than yield to intoxicating political polemic which makes for interesting reading but little else.

Put simply, while minorities have excellent reason for their extreme bitterness against the State, this is not an exclusive right. Political failure aside, our intellectual failures therein have been profound, again transcending ethnic boundaries. To hold otherwise is to be trapped into exactly the kind of narrow exclusivist corner that the promoters of this so-called Sinhala hegemonic project would like. Finally, as a question of pure political strategy, this is also a self-defeatist view which speaks to more of a disastrous attempt to run before a badly damaged people can tentatively and with great difficulty, learn to walk again.

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