‘Sri Lanka First'  - Get Your One Million People Out Now!

by Amrit Muttukumaru

The brouhaha since the proposal for a ‘Joint Mechanism’ (JM), or the ‘Post-Tsunami Operational Management Structure’ (P-TOMS) as it is now called, was initially announced a few months ago, is rising to a crescendo as D-day is approaching.  Isn’t this a familiar refrain which has been the hallmark whenever a serious attempt is made to address the ethnic issue?  The root of the opposition has always largely been based on political expediency.  It is not for nothing that it is said that "patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel"! 

The objective of the JM is to equitably share the massive resources pledged for Tsunami relief, reconstruction and rehabilitation between the worst-affected North and East and the rest of the country, particularly the South.  The irony is that the JM does not even strictly address the ethnic issue, although as a confidence-building measure it has the potential to initially mitigate the conflict and subsequently contribute towards its resolution. 

Yet, there is strident opposition even to the JM both within the UPFA government in the form of the JVP and outside it from radical Sinhala nationalists, which include sections of the Buddhist clergy, some of whom are members of parliament.  There is also at least tacit opposition from smaller UPFA coalition partners such as the MEP.  The support of the prime minister is at best lukewarm.  The support of the EPDP, NUA and SLMC are also far from convincing.  But the most unprincipled stance in terms of its ambiguity is that of the country’s main opposition party and alternate government - the UNP, which when in power very commendably pursued the peace process and signed the ceasefire agreement with the LTTE.

Ground Reality

There is no question that the single largest issue which will determine the survival of this country as a united, prosperous and vibrant democracy is how it deals with the intractable ethnic conflict.  This, in turn, is dependent on responsible governance.  Yet, in spite of this, there is strong resistance to even the equitable sharing of Tsunami relief. 

Whether one likes it or not, the plain fact is that the LTTE is in actual control of vast extents of real estate in the northeast and in a powerful position to influence events in much of the ‘cleared’ areas as well.  In the areas under its control, the LTTE has many of the structures normally associated with a State.  It is also in a position of military parity with the Sri Lankan State, which is the raison d'ętre for the ceasefire agreement.  This is the ground reality.  Hence, there is no getting away from the fact that one has to actively engage with the LTTE if anything is to be implemented in the northeast.  However, this does not mean that the LTTE can be allowed to ride roughshod over other entities in the region.  This is the purpose of negotiations for a just solution while taking into consideration the ground reality.

Joint Mechanism

It is indeed a pity that the government has not given due publicity to educate the people on the objective and benefits of the JM, safeguards to protect pluralism, limitations in terms of period of operation and area of applicability, inclusiveness particularly at the District level, donor monitoring and, most importantly, the significant compromises made by the LTTE.  In the absence of this, the vociferous opponents are having a field day, spewing out misinformation and hatred and literally frightening the people.  Although those stridently opposing the JM may well be in the minority, the sad fact is that it is their message that is creating an aura of strength for the opposition which could spell disaster.  On the other hand, the voice of the supposed moderate majority is barely heard or visible.  It is urged that the government immediately commence such an educational programme (not a propaganda campaign!) using both the state and private media.

Potential Mass Support

It is indeed tragic that the support of potentially powerful forces in civil society is at best muted and confined to wishy-washy press statements and mere appeals.  Some have not even done this.  The business community, who are supposed to be the ‘engine of growth’ of the economy and in receipt of substantial state patronage and handouts, have a special responsibility to give leadership through its umbrella organization ‘JBIZ,’ in partnership with a grassroot NGO such as ‘Sarvodaya’ for a mass civil society movement in support of the JM.  The activities of these organizations, which have never been sustained, have hitherto been sadly confined largely to gimmicks, with one eye on funding sources and the other on their personal ‘advancement’ and egos.  The truth is that whenever it comes to a crunch and the nation is in peril be it the ethnic issue or issues of governance, these groups become dormant.  The parlous state of the country which is fast deteriorating bears ample testimony to this.

An example is ‘Sri Lanka First,’ which is an initiative of an influential section of the business community, formed to purportedly address the ethnic issue only when their interests were directly threatened by the devastation to the country’s only international airport in July 2001, has never really asserted itself other than its one-off claim of bringing out one million persons onto the streets on 19 September 2001 to ‘hold hands’ for a few minutes for peace.  Irrespective of the actual numbers involved and who was actually responsible for it, it was clearly an impressive effort.  Unfortunately, the momentum was not been sustained since.  Its subsequent activities have been mainly confined to lavish advertising campaigns, ambiguous press statements, ‘appeals’ to politicians and a visit to South Africa - all supposedly for the cause of ‘peace’.

‘Sarvodaya’ which should have been a beacon of hope for this country, somewhere along the way seems to have lost its bearings to personal and family objectives, not to mention commercial interests.  Unfortunately, the noble concept of non-violence which it espouses has been highly distorted in this country to the extent where no one takes it seriously.  Non-violence is possibly one of the most courageous and effective undertakings to address social, economic and political problems.  It is far from being a passive concept.  It is definitely more courageous than wielding a lethal weapon!  Yet, ‘Sarvodaya’ still has the capacity to create a mass movement for national and social causes.

The ‘Sarvodaya’ executive director has claimed that its ‘Ahimsa’ peace meditation on 21 September last year on the lawns of the BMICH to commemorate ‘World Peace Day’ had 200,000 attendees from 7500 villages.  It is also claimed that its ‘Peace Meditation’ on 15 March 2002 in Anuradhapura was attended by 500,000 persons from 15,000 villages.

Conclusion

It is high time that potentially influential groups such as the business community’s ‘JBIZ’ and ‘Sri Lanka First,’ grass root NGOs such as ‘Sarvodaya’, professional groups such as OPA and the moderate sections of the religious clergy from all religions form a broad coalition to indicate their active support for the JM.  The situation has the potential to get out of hand due to the emotions generated by the fast-unto-death of some prominent Buddhist monks within the precincts of the hallowed Sri Dalada Maligawa.  Under the circumstances, it is imperative that ‘JBIZ’, ‘Sri Lanka First’ and ‘Sarvodaya’ immediately pool their collective resources and get the million persons they claim they can influence onto the streets, not only of Colombo, but in other parts of the country as well, as a powerful show of force in support of the peace process in general and the JM/P-TOMS in particular.

This campaign should be sustained even in the event of the government itself reneging on the JM/P-TOM.  It is time these organizations put their money where their mouth is and convert their rhetoric into concrete ACTION NOW!

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Posted June 9, 2005