Something is Rotten in the State of Sri Lanka

By D.B.S. Jeyaraj, June 12, 2005

Editor's note: A short while ago D. Sivaram (Taraki) wrote a piece about how even Tamil paramilitaries in the employ of the Sri Lankan government retain their Tamil nationalist ideals; they are just caught in a bind over their anti-LTTE sentiments and the need to make a living.  DBS analyzes the problems of Sinhala racism and the role of the international community correctly in the following article.  In his writing, however, he seems to have no solution to these problems other than 'pluralism,' 'democracy,' and 'appealing to the authorities.'  There is little recognition that there is no recourse within the international system for an aggrieved minority when a majority community tries to eliminate them physically, geographically and culturally.  If Tamil nationalists do not like the course the LTTE has charted, can they propose a credible alternative? 

It must be frustrating indeed for the International community and other proponents of the Post - Tsunami Operational Management Structure [P-TOMS] to see the tragi - comic drama unfolding before their eyes right now.  Their brainchild conceived in the aftermath of the tsunami disaster is on the verge of a forced abortion.  The carefully-constructed mechanism aiming to contain the Tigers in rehabilitation and reconstruction may never see the light of day, given the powerful ultra - Sinhala opposition to it.

The international community that aided and abetted Colombo in prosecuting a war with the LTTE realised at the turn of the twentieth century that the Sri Lankan forces were incapable of achieving a military solution against the LTTE.  The series of defeats suffered in the Wanni during Operation Unceasing Waves, the successful military strikes in the peninsula including the fall of Elephant Pass, the siege of Jaffna, the defeat of the state's much flaunted counter - offensive Operation Agni Kheela, etc. demonstrated that a military victory was beyond the wildest imagination of Colombo.

It was then that the Western nations and Japan began actively promoting the peace process.  Earlier, it was lukewarm support on the one hand, while bankrolling South Asia's longest war on the other.  It was decided that the only way out was to promote a political settlement during the course of which the Tigers would be "contained" in a state of non - combat.  It was perceived that the longer the Tigers kept away from fighting, the greater their chances of dissipation, dissension and decay.  It was correctly surmised that internal revolts and defections will occur.  These were partly proved right in the form of Vinayagamoorthy Muraleetharan, alias "Col" Karuna.

Unfortunately for the "West," the xenophobic Sinhala chauvinists were unable to realise that the peace process was being mooted and promoted for their own good.  The idea was not to split Sri Lanka, but to ensure the fractured island's unity, sovereignty and territorial integrity, albeit in a federal system.  The West was also prepared to let the LTTE enjoy some "extra - Constitutional" power in the process.  The main idea was to keep the Tigers quiet and away from the battlefront.  The West was ready to tolerate many human rights violations, including the killing of political dissidents and conscription of minors by the Tigers, as long as they did not start fighting with the Sri Lankan state.  Of course, some token protests were raised but they were for the most part token.

Unfortunately the West never comprehended or anticipated the extent of anti - Tamil feelings in the Sinhala supremacist psyche.  They miscalculated the inherent hegemonistic attitude of the Sinhala majority (Mahajathiya) towards the minority (Sulujathiya) communities.  They rushed in like fools, where angels who had burnt their wings - like India - feared to tread.  The end result was continuous cries of opposition to the West's well - meaning efforts by the Sinhala hawks.  An active conspiracy theory was floated - and believed - that Oslo was the catspaw of sinsister forces out to dismember tiny Sri Lanka.  The bitter irony for the West was that the conspiracy - if at all in the peace process - was to weaken the Tigers gradually and do away with the separatist threat gradually.

Given the prevailing conditions and their own constraints in discussing a federal solution, the LTTE came out with its Internal Self-Government Authority [ISGA] proposal.  Even before it was discussed, the knives were out.  The chief culprits in this were President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga and her trusted foreign minister Lakshman Kadirgamar.  They whipped up a campaign against the ISGA and used it as a stratagem to condemn the Ranil Wickremasinghe regime.  The JVP, Buddhist fronts, etc. joined the bandwagon.  After shamelessly exploiting the situation to her advantage, Kumaratunga dissolved Parliament and held elections.  She joined forces with the Sinhala "National Socialist " JVP.  The bogeyman was Wickremasingh,e who was accused of selling out to the Tigers.

They [the Chandrika - JVP coalition] won, but without an absolute majority.  Worse still for Kumaratunga, she found herself a captive of the JVP that had got 39 seats, four ministerial and four deputy - ministerial posts.  Despite the reins of office being in her hands Kumaratunga found herself completely shackled when it came to the ethnic crisis.  The JVP was against Norwegian involvement, against devolution and against having anything to do with the Tigers.  If Kumaratunga thought the lure and spoils of office would have mellowed the JVP, she found the national socialists as firm as ever on the Tigers.  In a sense, the JVP was being honest to its policies, election manifesto and voters.  This resulted in a deadly stalemate on the ethnic front.

The Tigers were losing patience fast.  By December last year the LTTE had decided on some firm action.  It was decided to declare a withdrawal from the ceasefire by Feb 23rd 2005.  [The only place this particular piece of information is available - if true. -- Editor] The announcement to that effect was to be made on Jan 14th.  There would be no immediate recourse to war, but the LTTE would be keenly watching the situation.  If that situation had come to pass a full - fledged war would have been inevitable by April - May this year.

Then came the tsunami disaster.  Northeastern coasts were devastated as in the case of the Southwest.   Given the extent of suffering caused, a return to war by either party was out of the question.  On the other hand, the natural calamity provided a humanitarian opportunity for resumption of dialogue.  There was no need to talk of federalism or devolution or the ISGA proposal of the LTTE.  Instead, both parties could talk about providing relief and rehabilitation to the afflicted people.  Moreover, both sides could forge a common mechanism to address those needs and concerns speedily and effectively.  If this did materialise, then that could pave the way for further talks on more substantive issues.

In order to encourage this move the international community pledged a very generous aid package, but with one big string attached.  Both Colombo and Kilinochchi should forge some joint mechanism for the money to be delivered on time and as pledged.  In fairness to her, Kumaratunga, too, recognized immediately the merits of this move.  Thereafter, she actively promoted such a venture.  The LTTE also responded positively.  Yet the pace of discussions on what was an urgent humanitarian project was dismally slow.  Despite the tardy progress, the project reached finality.  And then the excreta collided with the oscillator.

Many years ago former TULF Parliamentarian S. Kathiravetpillai made an apt comment about the nature of things in Sri Lanka.  Comparing Sri Lanka to the apartheid South African state prevailing at that time, Kathiravetpliilai said "Racism in South Africa is skin deep.  Racism in Sri Lanka is soul deep."  Even the West may have never bargained for the reaction to the so called P- Toms or Joint Mechanism.  Of course, the objection [by Sinhala nationalists] was to giving powers to the terrorist LTTE, but the underlying thoughts were fundamentally racist.  After decades of exercising hegemonistic control over the Tamils, the hard - liners were in no mood to accomodate sharing power, even in a tsunam relief project.  The Amarapura Mahanayake in an interview used the word "demallu" (Tamils) openly and inter- changeably when referring to the LTTE.

Now the Sinhala chauvinist supremacists have won the first battle.  They have succeeded in pressurising Kumaratunga to backtrack on the JM for the present.  She has promised that she will not sign the document without consulting the Mahanayakes.  She has also guaranteed that the JM will not threaten the unity, sovereignity or territorial integrity of the Country.  This was no concession as the project never did harm those in any way.  In fact, the JM strengthened those further.  The worst, however, is yet to come.  The JVP has threatened a pull - out from the Government on June 16th if Kumaratunga does not pull back from the project by June 15th.  Kumaratunga, however, seems equally determined and has declared that she would quit rather than go back on the Joint Mechanism.  But politics is the art of the possible, and many turns and twists are possible in the near future.

Whatever the final outcome of this unholy struggle, one fact has been proved conclusively.  The original sin in this garden of Eden was Sinhala - Buddhist majoritarian racism.  Sri Lanka's slow path to decline and destruction began with the Sinhala - Buddhist chauvinist policies of the post - Independence era.  The fundamental and major problem standing in the way of a united, undivided Sri Lanka has been majoritarian hegemonism and unwiilingness to recognize the inherent rights of the other minorities or nationalities living in the island.  Other problems emanating from other communities are minor or lesser in nature when compared to this.

From the time this peace process began I have been interacting with several western diplomats and journalists.  They would continuously harp on the LTTE factor and project it as the biggest stumbling block to lasting peace.  While agreeing that the LTTE does pose a problem, I would argue that the greater problem would be the Sinhala chauvinists.  The activities of the Tigers would give them a pretext, but historically the majority mindset will not allow any tangible rights to the Tamils, I would say.  I would also point out past history and say that the [Sri Lankan] power elites are either unwilling or unable to withstand opposition on these issues and will be cowed down by the chauvinist forces.  The response on most counts would be polite disbelief.  The naked exhibition of aggressive Sinhala-Buddhist consciousness against the proposed oint Mechanism may have demonstrated what is rotten in the state of Sri Lanka.

Let there be no mistake about it.  The rise of Sinhala - Buddhist chauvinism is the bane of modern Sri Lanka.  From the days of the Buddhist Commission to the present times of a joint mechanism, this underlying current is visibly present.  From Anagarika Dharmapala to Omalpe Sobitha, there are Buddhist champons ever-ready to deprive Tamils.  There are excuses always and the jargon used appears to be reasonable and just on the surface, but the vicious communalism is always there.  Now the brutality and violence of the LTTE is depicted as the reason justifying opposition to the joint mechanism.  But, then, these same forces attacked SJV Chelvanayagam and Appapillai Amirthalingam as exremists, too.

The rise of the religious right is a dangerous phenomenon in South Asia.  India is fortunate that there are vast numbers of intellectuals, political leaders and opinion makers who are prepared to combat this Hindu Chauvinsm openly and vigorously.  In Sri Lanka there are very few members of the Sinhala - Buddhist ethnicity who are prepared to do so.  Unless and until a new breed emerges from the Sinhala - Buddhist entity to challenge this hegemonistic school of thought.  Forget about Tamils or Muslims.  There is no hope for the Sinhala people in the modern world if these arch - reactionaries continue to flourish.  Let us not forget that for four and a half years (1966 - 70) we had our weekends on Poya and pre - Poya Day.

It has been said of the French Bourbons that they learnt nothing and forgot nothing.  The same could be said of the Sinhala - Buddhist hegemonists, too.  If the International community does really want a genuine, just, honourable and durable peace in Sri Lanka, it must address itself to this majoritarian mindset.  The problem lies there.  It does not matter whether the LTTE is really prepared to abandon Tamil Eelam or not at this juncture.  What matters is that the Tigers have a very legitimate and valid reason to decline direct talks on a lasting settlement.  If the Sinhala majority is not ready to share power on a limited enterprise like the Joint Mechanism, what chances are there then that a scheme of devolution or federalism will be accepted?  Against that backdrop the LTTE cannot be faulted if it does not come to the negotiating table.  One only hopes and prays that the LTTE will not resort to war.

The recent demonstrations against the Joint Mechanism and the JVP stance are a firm wake - up call to the International community.

Something is rotten in the state of Sri Lanka.  It is time to take note of what is really wrong in Sri Lanka.  The root cause of the problem needs to be addressed.  The NorthEastern victims of the tsunami have waited too long for relief and redress.  They cannot be expected to languish in refugee camps while the majoritarian chauvinists whip themselves into a frenzy.  How are these innocent victims of a natural disaster going to receive the pledged international aid?  We cannot wait for a Joint Mechanism to be forged in a society that is soul deep in racism.  Desperate situations require desperate remedies.  The suffering people should get help as soon as possible.  Time is of the essence.



Posted June 14, 2005